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“Good Books” HuffPo Thinks Women Should Read

March 30, 2012

The Huffington Post has a list of Good Books Every Woman Should Read. As I read it, I wondered if I was feeling patronized and grumpy about it because I just hadn’t had enough coffee yet this morning.

someone in the group is almost guaranteed to… say something along the lines of “god, I looooved that boooook.” Which may devolve — no, evolve — into a conversation about all the books you’ve mutually loved and when you read them and why they moved you at that time in your life. It’ll be an instant “love, loss and what I read” party. Please do try this at home. If you play this game for long enough, a few titles will probably emerge as books every woman would benefit from reading.

Of course, I would never argue with the delight of a conversation about books. But that’s because I’m a reader, foremost and always. The language of this post rankles. Books “every women should read,” and implicitly gush with love about, as if reading dislikes and likes are mapped universally on gender. As if a powerful story would only resonate in the cloister of a woman’s bookshelf, and a women-only book club. A reader is a reader. The tone and setup for this list was so patronizing, I sent it to friend and fellow Librarian-In-Training, Lisa Peet, to get her take on it.

Lisa’s answering post is positively majestic, the following excerpt in particular.

 even though the HuffPost likes to wear its annoying like an ironic bad band t-shirt—which is to say proudly and often—it wasn’t quite apparent, at first read, what it was that managed to rub both of us the wrong way. Was it the gender reductionism? The should?—we’ve all had that “well-behaved women seldom make history” pillow our aunts needlepointed sitting on the couch for years now. Or was it the weird lack of an ethos?

Onto the titles themselves…

No, Just No!

Too often, I think, there’s a conflation between “book for women,” and “book where someone dies tragically, and people mourn” (The Lovely Bones)or “book chronicling a woman’s misery in excruciating detail.” (The Bell Jar) Look, I get that catharsis has an appeal, and I’ve had a good cry over a good book (Little Women, anyone?). I see the repeated conflation of “for women” and “steeped in tragedy” as problematic on a number of levels, though.

I remember being miserable when I was assigned A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf. But I get that it is historically important. Glad that Bossypants is on the list as well- I think it makes a good foil for the portrayal of the agonized, passive woman.

Seeing Twilight on the list was alarming. But the comment was: “Just to know what 500 Million girls got so excited about!” Which is fair. But “good book?” At best, it’s a cautionary tale, featuring a decidedly creepy stalker romance and a spineless female protagonist.

Actually Good Books:

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. It’s an elegant novel of a scary, dystopian vision of a future in which women are limited, second class citizens. I would say it’s a good read for women, and for men. I’m currently indulging in a fantasy of mailing copies to certain political personages and lawmakers.

In a similar vein, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America, by Barbara Ehrenreich is a smart investigation, and an important, compelling read for anyone. Add this to the care package I’d like to send to Washington.

I haven’t read The Beauty Myth, by Naomi Wolf, but I would say it’s a good idea for anyone to read books discussing the flawed portrayal of women in the media. In a lot of ways, reading this kind of thing as a woman is a bit of a “preaching to the choir” scenario.

When Everything Changed– Gail Collins. She’s a great writer, and it’s a fascinating guide to recent women’s history. But, again… not just for women to read! I thought the previous volume: America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmeets and Heroines was even more engrossing, though.

Holding Up Half The Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl Wu Dunn is a good one for the list, for raising an international and multicultural awareness of the issues facing women. And probably a good one for the Washington care package, incidentally. I remember having a few problems with a whiff of imperialism in the tone of how this played out, but the information is important.

Although it wasn’t a life-changer for me, I can see including Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. I remember that it had lovely flights of language and imagery. Almost poetic.

As a poet and lover of poetry, I’m a little miffed that poetry doesn’t come in til the end of the list. (The Bell Jar gets a nod earlier, but I’m dubious on many counts.) Whoever added Edna St. Vincent Millay to the list didn’t say why. But, a list of smart, important women poets could be a list in itself.

Books I Should Read:

Franny and Zooey– J.D. Salinger. Because I should read something by Salinger that isn’t Catcher In the Rye.

The Feminine Mystique– Betty Friedan. Because it’s historic.

The Woman At The Washington Zoo– Marjorie Williams. For the title alone.

The Girls of Slender Means- Muriel Spark. All I know is that it’s set in a British boarding house, and sounds irresistible.

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