Why I read women (or, why “universal” literature is bunk)

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If you’ve spent any time on my blog–if so, thank you! –I think you’ll soon realize how few books by men I seek out, read, and write about. Scanning back a few months, the last two books by men that I’ve mentioned were Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan (in September) and November Road by Lou Berney, in a Friday Bookbag all the way back at the beginning of August.

It’s not that there aren’t books by men that I enjoy. To discount the artistic ability of nearly half the population would be absurd, right? (Ha.) It’s that, for me, reading is personal. I have always read what I want to read, and I want to read about women.

Luckily, at least in this regard, I grew up homeschooled. (The only formal schooling I got before college was one hellish year in kindergarten.) While the experience was a mixed bag, one thing I remain grateful for was that my mother did not insist I read classics, leaving me instead to read…well, everything else.

Before starting this blog, I ran a YA book blog titled “Bibliophilia – Maggie’s Bookshelf” (clearly, I’m not particularly creative with blog names) from 2009-2013 or so. I took it down some time ago–it was full of embarrassing coming-of-age content that I no longer wanted to broadcast to the web–but the experience was profound. It was my first exposure to ARCs, reviews, the ins and outs of publishing, and most importantly, the incredible diversity of books that are out there if you’re willing to find them.

Once, both for that blog and for my own enjoyment, I read 365 books in a year. It’s a great fun fact.

And yet I’ve never read Moby Dick. I’ve never read Lord of the Flies or 1984 or Lolita or Steinbeck or Twain or Dostoyevsky or any of the dozens more defining books of the English-language canon.

It’s not something I’m proud of, per se, because canons exist to create common ground, and no reader is an island. I may not have read Moby Dick but I have read countless other books by authors who care a lot about Moby Dick. To be so unfamiliar with their source material is a loss, not a gain.

But I still don’t know if I’ll ever read Moby Dick, because I value fun–or at the very least, human connection–in what I read, and Moby Dick strikes me as neither fun nor about the kind of humans I care for, although perhaps I would be interested in the whale. If that makes me a bad reader, so be it.

There is also, quite simply, so much else to read.

I once began a college essay with “I have never been fond of feminism as a way of being.” It was an essay for an English literature class; an essay on Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, no less. It’s an essay I look back on with a fair amount of embarrassment, but also, strangely, delight.

Because earlier that same year, I devoured Mockingjay, hunting an elusive release day copy at every bookstore in town. I would soon be introduced to Tris of Divergent. I already loved the kooky, Southern Belle-esque feminine wiles of Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves, about a schizophrenic biracial girl who returns to a Lovecraftian Texas town to fight monsters. I was enthralled by Gemma Doyle, Libba Bray’s Victorian witchy badass who has a vulnerable side, too. I was addicted to Philippa Gregory’s “historical,” smutty novels about the women of Tudor England. Which is to say nothing of Katsa or Lauren Olamina or Offred, or–heaven help me–Bella Swan, or Merricat and Constance of We Have Always Lived in the Castle itself, or the dozens of other intense, prickly, complex heroines who have profoundly shaped my life.

I am delighted by my crappy college essay because it has the broken-clock quality of understanding that feminism, to me, is not a way of being, at least not in any cohesive sense. It is merely–and perhaps that is the wrong word–merely the acknowledgment that the lives of women and nonbinary people are not second-rate. (Revolutionarily.)

Their stories aren’t second-rate, either, something I must have understood already, based on my tastes. Based, as well, on my analysis of Jackson’s creepy, idiosyncratic, lovely novel about two sisters, an uncle, and a sugar bowl. I still think that analysis is quite good; I found that novel to be deadly serious, and still do, just as I find the lives of young girls everywhere to be deadly serious.

If I were to assemble a personal canon, here are the novels I would place most prominently within it:

  • The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
  • History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
  • Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
  • Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
  • and, yes, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.

It is not the canon. It is a canon, and I am always re-shaping it. It is a key to my heart and also, somehow, my heart itself. I encourage you to develop your own.

My life is not second-rate. My experiences are not second-rate. And neither of the stories of other oft-forgottens, especially the stories of Black women, Indigenous women, and other women of color. I am always reading–devouring–stories that affirm that truth, however frivolous they seem. (In fact, the more frivolous, the better.) This is an act of self-love and an act of love for the universe.

It is not that I find the male literary canon to be irrelevant. It is that it is a treasure that already has a home and a prominent shelf to itself.

And I am looking to find treasures of my own.

Margaret Atwood, Han Kang, and more will bury their new novels for 100 years. What do you think about the Future Library Project?

Yesterday I was reading the Literary Hub newsletter (ever a goldmine) and ran across the news that a new novel by Han Kang, along with work by Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Elif Shafak, and Sjón, will be part of an art project called “Future Library.” Scottish artist Katie Paterson has asked that no one see the new books except for the authors themselves. The new novels won’t be read for 100 years, when a grove of Norwegian spruce trees planted in 2014 will mature and be cut down in order to print them.

nature forest trees fog
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My first reaction is…what?! This seems terribly gimmicky to me, like most time capsule projects do. Who will be in charge of making sure this actually happens in 100 years? Will these authors even be remembered? Will anyone care? (Even remarkably popular, talented, and prolific authors aren’t guaranteed to age well in people’s memories.)

But maybe that’s a selfish reaction, and one that Paterson is deliberately trying to provoke. I can’t help but feel like something is being stolen from me. I especially don’t like the idea of missing out on new Han Kang, who wrote one of my favorite novels, The Vegetarianas well as Human Acts.

What say you, readers? Will this art project be an aching testament to the power of time and imagination? Or is it a waste of perfectly good words from some of the greatest novelists working today?

You can read more about the Future Library Project over at The GuardianHan Kang had some especially lovely comments about why she’s excited about the project–even if I’m still feeling grouchy about not getting to read this newest novel of hers.

What books do you turn to when you’re sad?

It’s been a tough couple of weeks for me. My chronic pain has been especially severe and, well, chronic lately, and world news has felt especially bad. It got me thinking: what books help you cope when things are difficult?

I think there are two components that make a book a good companion when you’re sad: catharsis and comfort. Cathartic books help me to process what I’m feeling, while comforting books help me to forget for awhile. I’ve found I need both kinds, although I tend toward catharsis. (My family jokes–kindly–about my love of traumatic and tear-jerking media.)

I’ve listed a few of my favorite sadness-companion books below, and I’d love to hear about your own favorites in the comments.


9780307476074Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

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This is the newest addition to my list of go-to’s, but it’s a good one. Strayed’s blockbuster memoir documents the aftermath of her mother’s death–a painful divorce, casual heroin use, and a terrible dead-end feeling–and how, with nothing more to lose, she decided to spend a summer hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, despite being broke and brutally unprepared.

The result is a memoir that pushes the very limits of the form and is also tremendously inspiring–without, exactly, feeling inspirational. I devoured this book and highly, highly recommend it for anyone who has lost something–which is to say, everyone.

153008Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey

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Also fairly new to its permanent home on my nightstand is this spectacular high fantasy novel, about an alternate version of medieval Europe where gods still make their presence known. Kushiel’s Dart manages to be both hardcore escapism and also a remarkable commentary on our own world. In the nation of Terre d’Ange, where most of the story takes place, love is a central religious precept, making sex a spiritual act, and rape a crime of heresy as well as violence. It’s deeply erotic but also deeply emotional, and the action and world-building are to die for.

The whole series is incredible (I’m currently halfway through the first book in a second, linked trilogy), and I can’t recommend it more highly to fantasy lovers who are sick of the endless iterations of Tolkien-lite.

9780385720953The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

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It’s hard to imagine myself loving any book as much as I love The Blind Assassin. It’s a sprawling, messy family epic set in early-20th century Canada, told in conjunction with a novel-within-a-novel that’s part sci-fi, part modernist tragedy. The Blind Assassin‘s protagonist, Iris, is vain, proud, and a bit foolish, and at first it seems like the novel will never get where it’s going, but when it does, the effect is something akin to a refreshing plunge into deep, cold water.

I re-read this book at least once every couple of years, and every time I do, I find something new to love. While I wouldn’t characterize it as a comforting story, it is comforting for me personally, because I’m reminded of the person I was all the times I read it before.

77262Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver

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I distinctly remember “stealing” this book from my mother’s shelf when I was 11 or 12 years old; it was probably the first adult literary novel I ever read, so its emotional power felt especially fresh to me. It’s about a woman who returns to her tiny Southwestern hometown to help support her aging father. It touches on all sorts of topics, from Kingsolver’s characteristic environmentalism to her equally characteristic explorations of motherhood.

Over ten years after I first read it, its cathartic highs and lows (and a lovely, hopeful ending) still make it one of the first books I reach for when I need to revisit a familiar and comforting world.


Do you tend towards catharsis or comfort reads when times are tough? Do you have any stories of times books helped you through a difficult situation? If you’re game to share, I’d love to read your thoughts below.