What I’m Reading Now

Quick update: I got a mention in the Kudos (“Good News From Members”) section of the National Writers Union newsletter this month.

Again, this entry should fall under the category what I finished weeks ago and am just reviewing. As mentioned Friday, I had been reading Well-Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women by Barbara Sicherman. This valuable work, recently published by University of North Carolina Press, reviews the impact of reading on a group of women who grew up in the Gilded Age and became leaders in their various fields – from literature to politics and advocacy to medicine to education.

Well-Read Lives came to my attention because of a Google alert from the UNC press blog. Patti Smith apparently mentioned that Little Women’s Jo March had a positive influence on her view of herself as a female. Reading the entry, I discovered that Barbara had included Simone de Beauvoir, Ann Petry, and Cynthia Ozick among the women for whom Jo was “an exemplar.” I emailed Barbara saying that I thought Mother would love being in the company of Patti Smith, and then I bought the book. It was my way of escaping the rigors of preparing for the ALA conference.

Barbara combines excellent scholarship with a clarity of prose and insightful biography of her subjects that will make this book a success among academics and general readers alike. Beginning with her observation that reading fiction helps children overcome fears and make sense of the world around them, Barbara develops her thesis that the women of the Gilded Age were able to achieve great things because of their relationship with books, particularly fiction.

Almost from the first page, I gained insight into my own family beyond that special relationship that I knew my mother had with Jo March. My grandmother, who never finished high school, read to my mother and her sister. Grammy also maintained a considerable library. I always thought she was modeling behavior for her children. Now I realize that years before she had children she had developed the “culture of reading,” as Barbara calls it, in order to emulate the wealthy women for whom she worked. Just as she collected china and crystal and linen as they did, she read literature and bequeathed that legacy to her children along with the china, crystal, etc.

The comprehensive and excellent chapter “Young Women’s Ways of Reading” will drive me back to the writing of Edith Hamilton. The Greek Way was part of our library for as long as I remember, and Mythology drew me again and again to the stories of Theseus and the Minotaur, Perseus and Medusa. They were fiction and yet they were so real. Well-Read Lives makes clear that this accessible writer was but one in a constellation of eleven siblings and cousins (including a couple of boys) who read together and passionately debated what they read. Many of these Hamilton progeny became prominent in their fields. Sister Agnes, an aspiring architect, gave over her energies to a settlement house in Philadelphia; cousin Jessie became an artist; sister Alice practiced medicine as did cousin Allen Williams. In the context of exploring their lives, Barbara clarifies why novels remain a source of escape even in this age of video games, movies, Facebook, texting and the other distractions offered up by our electronic age.

Subsequent chapters delineate the reading lives and the work of M. Carey Thomas, who became president of Bryn Mawr and fought for women’s access to higher education, unless they were black or Jewish; and the philanthropist Jane Addams who founded Hull House and under whose tutelage minorities and the poor found “cultural space” to thrive.

Barbara makes it abundantly clear that reading was for the most part a badge of (white) middle- and upper-class privilege. The women in those families were freed from arduous household chores and benefited from educational opportunities. Their labor was not needed to contribute to the household, so they read. The exceptions, with which she ends the book, show that others were striving to achieve the same level of literacy and striving to use their abilities for the greater good. Ida B. Wells, who was forced to support her brothers and sisters following her parents’ deaths, concludes the book. Despite her poverty, she read herself into a successful career as a journalist and crusader against lynching. As I mentioned in Friday’s blog entry, Wells dwells in comparative obscurity compared to B.T. Washington, and W.E.B. Du Bois; Barbara has performed a valuable service in portraying Wells’s relationship with the printed word, which included fiction and non-fiction, newspapers, journals and plays.

The penultimate chapter, “New Books, new Loves: Jewish Immigrant Women, Reading, and Identity,” is in my view the most engaging. These recent immigrants differ from the others in this book in a great many respects. Unlike everyone else, including the African American Wells, many Jewish women were illiterate until they were older than the average school-age child. Those who could read lacked literacy in Hebrew the “esteemed” language, having been taught the “devalued” Yiddish. Rose Cohen, Mary Antin, and Bella Cohen Spewack demonstrate the heroism of women who struggled against and triumphed over “otherness” through literature. They are true heroes. And if anyone doubts the power of the printed word, one look at the photograph on p. 217 of the press of wellbehaved girls covering their books with paper before checking them out of the library should disabuse them of any such view.

Barbara Sicherman has produced a valuable work that will appeal to anyone who loves to read.

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One Response to “What I’m Reading Now”

  1. What I’m Reading Now « Lizr128′s Blog Says:

    […] Patti Smith didn’t appear on my horizons much. I knew she was a punk rocker, a genre that passed me by. During that period I was listening almost exclusively to Miles and Coltrane and their kin, with an occasional side trip to B.B. King and Buddy Guy and those folks. But I also knew that she had won any number of awards and shared with my mother an adoration of Little Women, a fact noted by Barbara Sicherman in Well Read Lives. (“What I’m Reading Now”) […]

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