Dedicating a month to reading women writers both brings more attention to their terrific works and fulfills Reading Women’s mission to reclaim half the bookshelf.
In celebration of their first year podcasting, Reading Women debuted Reading Women Month to encourage everyone to read great books written by or about women throughout June.[*] As a member of the newly formed Women Writers Network, I love to see women’s writing being discussed and promoted. The latest VIDA count demonstrates that women writers still publish less than their male counterparts. Dedicating a month to reading women writers both brings more attention to their terrific works and fulfills Reading Women’s mission to reclaim half the bookshelf. You can show your support by using the hashtag #readingwomenmonth when you post about the books you’re reading on social media like Twitter and Instagram.[†]
If you need additional suggestions for your reading list, I’m recommending several books I’ve read:
Reading ranks highly among solitary activities because its immersive nature, by design, tends to work best solo. As a bonus, no one comments on how odd it is that you are doing it alone. Yet reading can has its social side, as both book clubs and public readings prove. And that socialization can be the whole point of reading with others.
Reading Side by Side
For me, reading with another person present ideally occurs when we quietly read our own texts, perhaps sharing the occasional bits that amuse or interest us. For many years now, that person has been my spouse, although my tot has begun joining me of late. These joint reading sessions become irksome with too many interruptions, but they generally work out well.
The scenario alters, however, when both parties want to read the same book. This happens infrequently, since my spouse and I are rarely on the same page[*] with reading material. When it does occur, it’s not exactly polite to mention items of interest when the other party hasn’t hit the same point in a book. Matters become more complicated when there’s only one copy of book and I need to wait ages to read a book so that we can finally discuss it. Or worse, so I can read it. But there are workarounds.
Reading in Tandem
During a recent car trip, my spouse played an audio copy of a nonfiction book we both wanted to read.[†] All the difficulties of reading together disappeared: The narrator provided the pacing, preventing me from getting too far ahead. The audiobook format allowed us to hit pause and discuss the portions of the book we found interesting or disliked. And we continued our listening once we returned home.
I don’t typically listen to audiobooks, possibly because I find auditory accompaniment unnecessary since I figured out that “reading in your head” thing. That, or read-along-books put me off the idea.[‡] In fact, the last time I listened to an audiobook was…in a car ride with my spouse a few years ago.[§] To be honest, I don’t see myself listening to many audiobooks on my own, unless I have a reason to do so.[**]
It occurred to me, though, my spouse and I should consider listening to more books together and not just on tedious car rides. There are other books we’ve both wanted to read that might make a good evening’s listening, taking a page from friends of ours (another couple) who refer to their audiobook sessions as their literary salon. It’d be interesting to see if this becomes our new reading habit.
And who knows? We might even let the kid pick a book or two.
Do you like to listen to audiobooks? Share why in the comment section below. Also, sign-up to the Sequence’s newsletter and keep current with the latest posts.
[‡] As children, one of my brothers and I couldn’t hit the fast forward button fast enough during the song portions of a certain read-a-long book based on a movie. During the movie, the songs were okay, but they dragged without the accompanying visual entertainment. And the narrator read the book so sloooooooooooooow.
Throughout the novel’s course (spent shuttling between the narrator’s upbringing with Tracey and her later career), Smith’s characters act as foils for each other in ways that make us question identity.
In Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, the unnamed narrator finds herself with time for self-reflection following a scandal that leads to public ignominy and unemployment. The scandal itself, however, is the least interesting part of this novel that travels between time and place while the narrator comes to terms with whom she is. Of course, much of whom the narrator might be depends on perspective, place, and the unevenness of memory. Smith’s novel, short on plot, delves into notions of identity, with emphasis on how class and race intertwine.
Part of the narrator’s shifting identity stems from being the daughter of contrasting parents. Her mother, a black woman from Jamaica, is ambitious and intellectual, while her white, working class English father is the nurturer, determined to give his child a more stable, loving home than he had. The narrator wryly notes that her upbringing in the estates occurred “in the widening gap” between her parents who eventually divorce. She is neither parent’s child exactly, a sentiment that, in her father’s case, is exacerbated by meeting his white children from a previous relationship. To the narrator, they seem to be more genuinely his children than she is despite her father’s clear devotion. Smith gives her character unenviable insight: she could view this scenario from the opposite perspective but is unable to do so even as an adult. It’s this self-awareness and paralysis that make this character both frustrating and compelling.
Fiction and “Fitting In”
Throughout the novel’s course (spent shuttling between the narrator’s upbringing with Tracey and her later career), Smith’s characters act as foils for each other in ways that make us question identity. Shared skin color, for example, draws the narrator and Tracey (another biracial child) together when they meet in a dance class. Alike and different at once, both aspire to be dancers but only Tracey has the talent and drive for it. Yet Tracey longs for a loving father: she romanticizes her own abusive father’s absences—a tactic the narrator adopts when discussing her white siblings. Of course, such tactics and uncertain memory also complicate matters of identity. The epiphany that Smith’s narrator has about herself is inspired by watching Astaire’s performance in the movie Swing Time again. Yet, her realization (now wearing glasses and in good light) that she forgot Astaire performed in blackface disrupts this moment. And we are left to question: What is forgotten, what is untrue?
Laced with envy, the girls’ friendship is rocky. Sexuality, here, also affects identity and belonging. Although the narrator remains Tracey’s friend when the “nice” girls at school ostracize her for early sexual maturation, time spent together occurs only on Tracey’s terms. And Tracey sneers when the narrator socializes with the other girls, suggesting that the narrator’s presence among them is pretense. While playtime with nice girls like Lily Bingham offers the narrator relief from Tracey, it also invites alienation. Lily—white, middle class and “color blind”—is hurt when the narrator shows her a film scene featuring only black performers. The narrator doesn’t understand what Lily means by “we” when Lily claims “we” would be displeased if only black children were allowed to attend dance classes, both casually conferring and negating her friend’s black identity. This alienation is echoed in Africa. There, the black residents are impressed that “white women” like the narrator and her employer, Aimee (an actual white woman), can dance like black people do.
Career: Celebrity and Erasure
Aimee, an Australian pop idol, is the least intriguing of the Smith’s characters, partly suffering from being too similar to a certain real-life pop idol and partly from her resemblance to a force of nature. To be fair, the latter also represents a comment on celebrity. Smith, however, permits Aimee to be personable, unafraid to cut through emotional morass, and more emotionally available to the narrator than her own mother. Possessing her mother’s social awareness, the narrator cannot ignore how her identity may be used to avoid charges of insensitivity when she raises concerns that Aimee’s “carnival” versions of African dances could be interpreted as cultural appropriation. She’s ignored, of course: her work involves making Aimee’s life smoother, not disrupting it as she eventually does.
Cooperative or not, Smith narrator fails to inspire admiration the way other women in her life might. Overly apologetic, she lacks a dream to chase or a cause for which she fights, instead laboring in the shadows for others: her mother (recruited to participate in social marches), briefly Tracey (working as stagehand where she helps Tracey deal with costumes and love affairs), and Aimee, as her always on-call assistant. Over time, the narrator’s existence is at last subsumed: she cannot maintain her own social circle or romantic relationships while she services Aimee’s life. The resulting scandal, while not an attempt to quit, nonetheless betrays her discontent.
Shadows and Belonging
In the aftermath of the narrator’s scandal, watching Astaire’s dance with three shadows of himself causes the narrator to realize that she “experiences [herself] as a kind of shadow”. Dismissing these shadows, the question remains will she dance on as Astaire did? Swing Time is a thoughtful meditation on identity that meanders but never loses it way from this concern. Whatever path the narrator decides to take with the revelations about herself, however, lie with Tracey, her left-behind sister who happens to be the one person that evokes belonging.
Among the many pleasures of reading is the journeys we take to distant places, some which we may only see in our imagination.[*] For the locales that we do get an opportunity to see, there’s excitement associated with traveling to places we’ve read about. And then, there’s a third category: visiting a place whose literature we haven’t much (or any) acquaintance with. Although many places on my “To Visit” list earned their spot because of books I’ve read, I’ve been inspired to travel for many reasons, ranging from a friend’s invitation to browsing the Internet and finding an amazing destination. In the spirit of an upcoming adventure to a place with which I have little real or literary familiarity, though, I decided to explore reading for travel and perhaps choose a few books to prepare me for that trip.
For many, travel reading often involves trip research. Spontaneity has its charm, but obtaining information about travel arrangements (transport and accommodations), climate, attire, special equipment needed,[†] visas and so forth is critical when traveling to distant locales. As far as travel and reading go, this category leans more toward organization than adventure but nonetheless should be on the research radar if a trip necessitates it. Internet sites (tourism, travel blogs, government sites, etc.) and travel guides seem to be the go-to resources for planning travel.
But thinking about research made me wonder about what people read to begin the process of learning more about a place and its culture. Finding books for a prospective trip (theoretically) isn’t difficult. I was curious, however, about how people decided to approach reading for upcoming travel. Did they read before they visited? As they traveled? How did they choose books? After being reminded to select my Internet terms with greater care,[‡] I discovered countless lists of books about [insert destination]—as easy as expected. But while they suggested books, they didn’t provide much guidance for how or what to choose.
Reading Before You Go and on the Go: Advice
So, I resumed my research. Intriguingly, the first thing I found was a contrarian article advising against reading before travel. Most sites I’d investigated assumed that readers would read before their travels (or bring books along) and slapped down a list of titles. Rachel Mann, a reader who’d been inclined but unable to delve into a few novels prior to a seven-city trip, argues that literary works provide artistic impressions of cities, portraying them “both better and worse than reality”. She likened the experience to the disappointment produced by viewing a movie having first read the book on which it was based. Mann further observed that such novels often ignore or gloss over the everyday experiences that travelers treasure.[§] Surely perusing works of nonfiction, particularly travel guides and travel memoirs, might provide a more realistic snapshot of a locale than some fictional works would? I also don’t think I found the differences between my experiences of visiting, say, London (even famous literary haunts) or further afield dismaying as compared to my reading. Perhaps it’s the effect of reading numerous works, set in different periods and places, about a specific country that avoided this result. However, it is worth considering the validity Mann’s claim that “having someone else’s experience” in mind could direct a traveler away from finding their own adventures.
Nonetheless, I can’t say Mann persuaded me: sometimes, a reading experience makes taking a trip worthwhile. Matt Hershberger’s article asserts that he became a traveler because he was a reader first. However, he agreed that visiting literary sites can be disappointing (to an extent, echoing Mann’s claim) because they can be touristy.[**] For him, properly engaging with the literature of a place he visits involves discussing literature with locals, something that facilitates actual cultural engagement. His other suggestion, recreating fictional character’s adventures, I found less appealing as it might have some real limits. While he cautions against unwise activities (specifically illegal and/or dangerous ones), I still found it difficult to imagine myself wanting to replicate some literary scenarios. Both may prove difficult to impossible to try before traveling. Still, it might be fun to eat at a restaurant patronized by a favorite character, right?
Mary Ellen Dingley, however, suggests nine types of book for traveling, some which can be read before leaving.[††] Her ideas ranged from bringing books that comforted or encouraged (travel can be daunting) to checking out classics, recent best sellers, and poetry hailing from your destination, particularly when traveling abroad. One of her more intriguing ideas involves reading a favorite YA novel in translation, a tactic that lets you practice reading in the language of host country. While her article isn’t bogged down with selection criteria, there’s enough suggestions to give readers several directions to try before settling down with a reading list.
Ready to Read and Roam
For my own part, I read numerous book lists. Goodreads (of course) was helpful, as were lists provided by local authors. I selected several books, mostly fiction (my reading preference), that appeared on multiple lists. I made sure that I had books by women writers (something many lists neglect still!), as well as books embracing different periods for some historical perspective. At present, I’m rather excited because the books I ordered through my library system’s online catalogue arrived, [‡‡] and I’m set to pick up a stack of books set in place where I plan to visit this summer. For me, it’s thrilling to begin my travels through the words of people who know where I’m going best. And perhaps that why I like to read before I go: I can’t wait to see where I’m headed.
Do you read before you travel? If so, what are your favorite literary adventures? Also, sign up for the Sequence newsletter to stay current with the latest posts!
[*] Or, when they’re actual places, on the Internet.
[†] My upcoming trips will alternate between city tours and outdoorsy adventures, meaning I need good walking shoes and hiking boots in my luggage.
[‡] “Travel reading” as a search term elicits articles suggesting books about traveling and/or traveling as self-discovery, travel memoirs, wanderlust, best travel guides, best books to take on vacation (with a heavy slant towards beach reading), etc. Reading (and writing) about travels of all kinds truly beguiles us.
[§] Like electric outlets. When I arrived in London, I knew I would encounter differences (spelling, pronunciation, crossing the street), but it was ordinary objects that worked similarly yet appeared so different that surprised and delighted me.
[**] The degree to which this may be acceptable varies from places and among individuals. In some places, crowds and/or a touch of cheesiness won’t turn meaningful sites awful, whereas other experiences suffer because they provide little value.
[††] Much like Hershberger, she suggests e-readers because they hold many books without incurring excess luggage fees. I tend to favor a real book, personally, because my beautiful intentions to read are often thwarted by actual desire to see and do—or the resulting sleepiness from having seen and done! One book will suffice in such cases. Had I longer trips with more planned leisure time, I’d consider the e-reader.
[‡‡] Okay, I’d still be excited if they weren’t about a vacation spot, because books, but still the prospect of adventure increases my excitement.
Part of writing involves the creation of a reading experience.
Goodreads recently rolled out a new feature, one that allowed you to put a “read” book back into your “currently reading” queue, making it easier to acknowledge that you’ve read a work more than once.[†] As a site user and fan of revisiting favorite books, this new feature resonated with me—as well as made me consider re-reading from a writer’s viewpoint. I occasionally think my writing (whether it’s a blog post or poem) is a conversation that I’m having through the written word. And it’s rather exciting to think that someone may well choose to re-read something I penned because they enjoyed “conversing” with me. From this perspective, I became quite curious as to why other people revisit books, stories, and poems again.
Reasons We Re-Read
Arguably, necessity is among those reasons, such as reviewing work-related texts that vary from profession to profession, some of which bears re-reading outside work hours. My education also required me to re-read several books, plays, and poems, sometimes more than once. While I’d be happy to immerse myself in some of those works again, others not so much.[‡] Appearing on multiple teachers’ syllabi, however, suggests a certain greatness of a work—or at least that it’s representative of a style—something that makes it important enough that we’ll see it again.
Most respondents to my poll (hosted here and on Twitter), however, re-read because they enjoy doing so. Fellow writer Sandy Bennett-Haber is a “re-reader of novels” because she finds “comfort in the familiar” and “sometimes because it is just a great story.” Her response dovetails with my reasons for re-reading fiction. I primarily re-read because I enjoyed the story. At other times, re-reading feels very much like a comforting routine. When I read an Agatha Christie mystery again, I know what to expect (regardless if I recall whodunnit) and look forward to that experience. Another reader I informally surveyed indicated he re-read works when he particularly liked a character. The idea that a single character is so well-crafted as to merit a re-read, too, is a compelling reason, one that inspires me to think of ways to make my characters receive such attention.
When Re-Reading Once Isn’t Enough
My poll also revealed that re-readers tend to read a book more than once. I thought briefly about books I’ve re-read multiple times. I often re-read previous book(s) in a series so I can create a seamless reading transition for an upcoming release. Anticipation often colors these re-reading experiences. Yet, certain books draw me to them in a more thoughtful way, in part because their compassion impresses me. I re-read The Last Call (which I discussed here) because it revealed how many viewpoints led to an historical event, something which is helpful thing to recall in contentious times. Still other books reminded me of happy reading experiences. I’m reading favorite books from my childhood to my child: seeing his excitement adds to my pleasure in rereading these books. Now that I’m a more sophisticated reader, I found a few things I didn’t appreciate the first time reading through.[§] As a recent article by Maria Popova reminds us, this goes some way towards the argument that Tolkien and other writers forwarded that children’s literature is just literature. And who wouldn’t want to write something that appealed to wide audience of readers?
Part of writing involves the creation of a reading experience. Whether it’s Edgar Allan Poe’s[**] idea that a short story should produce a single effect on its readers (ie, a singular emotional response) or the multiple experiences that novels produce for us, a writer’s work involves those responses. And it’s those responses, I realize, that make readers truly want to return a text and read again. When I go forward and edit, I want to carry with me the idea that I need to keep this conversation going so that my readers will want to spend time with my writing again and again.
“That was what she wanted. That more than family, that more than friendship, that more than love. Just the kind of day that couldn’t be called into premature darkness by the land.”
Wreckage of What Was
All the Living, a novel that debates whether a young woman should “submit to love” (as the cover put it) or find her way in the world, offers readers a tension-filled love affair. When Aloma arrives at the farm Orren inherited, she sees the mountains that she hates, that remind her of postponed dreams to go far beyond them and play piano without being lost in their shadow. The house, the first in which she’ll ever live, is dilapidated just as the piano Orren promised that she could use for practice is ruined. The tremendous change in Orren, wrought by grief, surprises her. Her own orphaning occurred when she was too young to recall anything but her parents’ absence, thus leaving her unprepared for Orren’s new emotional distance. Her ignorance of farm life and lack of cooking and cleaning skills, the duties she is preparing to take on, too suggest future difficulties.
Young Lovers at Cross Purposes
To these disadvantages, Morgan adds her characters’ youth (Aloma is around 21 or 22; Orren is three years older)—something which becomes more concerning as the details of their courtship unfolds. They met at the settlement school, where Aloma worked as the staff pianist since her graduation. Their dates consisted mostly of driving near the school and sex, which means they didn’t share in each other’s daily existence. Orren, an “Aggie” student at a college three counties away, planned to own a large farm one day and wants to marry her. She responded to his suggestion with humor, as her plans involved leaving. With their goals at cross purposes, it’s not difficult to envision how this relationship might falter over time if they couldn’t compromise on their goals. Meeting his family at the farm might have her eased into the lifestyle there—or at least given her an opportunity to walk away from that life with less at stake. With tragedy spurring their decisions, their relationship has the potential to founder badly.
Points of Confusion
But I found myself puzzled at points while reading this story. Because Orren mentioned marriage before the deaths occurred, it seemed strange that he never brought her to meet his family. Eighteen months is a long time to date a person, let alone a potential marital partner, without introductions to the other important people in one’s life. And unless he hasn’t mentioned his relationship with Aloma to his mother at all (which puts his intentions in question), I’d be surprised if Emma wasn’t interested in meeting his girlfriend. For storytelling purposes, it’s important that Aloma doesn’t interact with his family so that she cannot share in Orren’s loss or see the expectations he might have for her as his future wife by visiting the farm. While it makes sense that Aloma belatedly realizes she should have met Orren’s kin (she, after all, has no family to think of), it seems to strange that Morgan drew attention to this point and chose not explain it however briefly.
Another puzzling moment involved the time period in which the story was set, something which was more difficult to decipher than it should have been. In fairness, Orren’s note and Aloma waiting for his arrival (instead of texting or calling) could suggest an era before widespread cell phone use (something which continued into the 1990s)—or just bad reception. For me, it certainly did not clearly signal the decade of the setting (1980s), which would have created the correct expectations for Aloma’s trip to the grocery store. Although the farm is isolated, the nearby community is small enough that most people know each other’s business. Since Aloma is charging her purchases to the Fenton account, the clerk mentions Emma “Sure had a lot of opinions”, which seemed odd (Heaven forbid a woman have opinions!). Her next remark was to ask whether Aloma and Orren were married. Aloma lies, but her blush betrays her and the clerk’s cordiality disappears from her face. Knowing that this story occurs in the 1980s would have explained the cultural attitudes towards women in general and marriage specifically. In a scene following the grocery incident, I eventually located one specific cultural landmark that places this story during the early 1980: the “Where’s the Beef?” posters, presumably referring to a Wendy’s ad campaign. I missed its significance in my initial reading, and I can see how somehow not familiar with this time would not understand it at all.
Were it not for Morgan’s prose (with rarely a word misplaced), Aloma’s efforts to conquer housework and cooking might have become tedious. The slow pace, however, allows the friction to arise between this disconnected couple. While submerging herself in work helps Aloma focus on Orren’s wants instead of her own, she becomes cognizant of how little she knows Orren. And the lack of piano coupled with not being married grates on her and they quarrel often. Morgan shines in making their days contentious. Although I’m not fond of Morgan’s tendency to provide conclusions about Aloma that the reader could be gleaned from the story, Aloma repeatedly shows that she’s “the girl who was always looking outward, getting to ready to leave”. Both Bell and Orren see this is in her: Orren accuses her of “fixin’ to leave”. Bell, the preacher who hires Aloma to play piano at services and who is unaware of her attachment to Orren, says she is cagey about whether she wants her freedom or to be “took in”. Her interactions with him represent that outward turn. Aloma does not intend to hurt Bell, but she’s lonely and wants the attention Orren once gave her, attention Bell now provides. She doesn’t think, however, how her behavior might affect Bell or consider the implications behind the attention he gives her even though she knows that he believes her to be single.
Once Aloma becomes the church pianist, the collision between these discontented forces seemed destined. To be truthful, I half hoped that she might call it quits with Orren, though I didn’t expect it. The book’s prevalent drift is towards submitting to love (the topic of Bell’s first sermon), which often reads to me as “the woman has to sacrifice her dreams”. I can’t say I agree with that drift under most circumstances. Here, it’s too easy to imagine Orren and Aloma unhappy together despite Aloma’s submission, even though it helps her bitterness dissipate. Still, Morgan’s conclusion doesn’t promise an easy future and is satisfactory enough. And it kept me thinking about what love requires of us in terms of selflessness over self-centeredness long after the cover closed.
In some ways, it’s a natural impulse to become the reader—to share the books you love—particularly if you have a child in your life, whether said child is yours or not.
I first read to a child while I myself still counted among their numbers. As is often the case in such cases,[*] I was babysitting a younger child who asked me to read a book I hadn’t seen in some time—a Doctor Seuss book, if I recall correctly. The teens are a bit early for nostalgia, but it reminded me of how much I loved reading Hop on Pop and other beginning reader books. It was fun to revisit an old friend and gleefully recite silly rhymes.
Becoming the Reader
In some ways, it’s a natural impulse to become the reader—to share the books you love—particularly if you have a child in your life, whether said child is yours or not. From the bookworm parent’s perspective, it’s truly a highlight to share a treasured childhood book with your child and watch that book become one of their favorites. It’s also a great opportunity to meet new books as well as catch up on books you might have missed the first time ’round.[†]
The respondents[‡] I polled about reading to children also happened to be parents, who primarily read to their children around bedtime for about 15 minutes, though one respondent ran a bit longer. Usually, parent readers take turns or allow the children to select the books. I personally like to select books when it’s my turn to read, since it’s a good opportunity to introduce books I think he’ll like as well as broaden his horizons.[§] If he expresses a preference for another book, though, I typically go with it—unless we’re reading something short because bedtime is running late!
The Kids Are Alright…with Reading Aloud
Of course, this makes me curious about what it’s like being read to from a kid’s perspective. As I mentioned in another post, I loved the story hour at my local library when the children’s librarian would read various stories aimed at younger audiences: I still recollect her soft voice declaiming words slowly enough for her listeners to easily follow along, how she looked up from reading and smiled at the gathered children. There, too, were read-along-book sets and other recorded stories I enjoyed. And my mother introduced me to the pleasures of listening to an audiobook on a car ride.[**]
Since I don’t much remember bedtime reading, I conducted an informal Q&A session with my household’s resident child. My interview revealed that he likes being read to by me, the spouse, and a close family friend, although he’s generally happy to have anyone read to him. While he didn’t choose a favorite reader on the home front,[††] I’ve learned that I do the best voices and that my spouse adds a lot of funny bits. So far, he likes that I choose stories for him, even though my spouse and he takes turns selecting books. And neither of us can keep story time to 15 minutes. A certain someone is good at wheedling for a few extra pages. In fact, he enjoyed the Alice in Wonderland so much that he’s requested that we start reading it as soon as we’re home.
Share your favorite childhood stories and books in the section below—I might read them to my tot soon! Also, don’t forget to sign up for the Sequence’s newsletter to keep current with the latest posts.
[*] Reading to younger siblings also counts as another common avenue. Since I’m a youngest child, that’s right out for me.