In our monthly book club, we discuss whatever we happen to be reading and ask everyone in the comments to do the same. What Are You Reading This Month?
My wife, like me, is an enormous nerd whose idea of a good time can be described as “reading with cats.” We both maintain big stacks of books that we riffle through, partly finish, circle back on, bemoan not having enough time for, and, occasionally, complete, with each tower stack tuned toward our own particular centers of nerdy enthusiasm. Still, a couple years back we found ourselves bemoaning the fact that, since college, we have nothing forcing us to read things from the canon we otherwise wouldn’t. We revealed to each other in this moment of intimacy that we had never read Proust. Proust! Like everyone else who has ever had this conversation, it lead to a book club.
This year we’re starting with Jane Austen, an author who I mostly envision as a huge pile of embroidered fabric draped atop a piano that Colin Firth is playing. I have never read any of her books, nor have I ever read anything like any of her books; it is a billion miles from my comfort zone. This is probably why the closest thing I can compare reading Emma to is when I read The Lord Of The Rings in college. After a lifetime seeing adaptations and impersonations and failed attempts to recreate something, it’s strange to actually immerse yourself in the real source, to see the verve and wit and spark of creativity that launched it all in the first place. There’s something about Tolkien’s texts that helps you feel the weight of history, to smell the dust of Middle-earth, and it is the same for Austen’s fast-moving comedy of errors, which I find myself staying up late to soar through. “Shit yes,” I think to myself as the headstrong Emma finds herself seated next to her rakish foil Mr. Knightley, “these two are about to engage in some witty repartee!” I’m not sure if I’ll be taking a trip to Mansfield Park on my own after this, but then, that’s why book clubs exist.
Last month, millions of people assembled for Women’s Marches across the world to voice their discontent with America’s new president and his administration. The turnout was enormous, huge even, and yet many were left asking, “Now what?” While short on advice for concrete action, Jessa Crispin’s Why I Am Not A Feminist (out February 21 from Melville House) couldn’t come at a better time. The fist-pumping feminist manifesto—don’t let the title fool you—relates self-reflective criticism of contemporary feminism, which, if turned into action, could make the movement worlds stronger.
What was once a radical cause, Crispin argues, has become a toothless designation more concerned with whether someone calls herself a feminist than whether her actions benefit all humans, instead of only people who look like her (Crispin centers white, middle- to upper-class women here). More women becoming CEOs of Fortune 500 companies might resemble progress, but such glass-ceiling-breaking still supports a capitalist system that oppresses the powerless.
Crispin, founder of the venerable review blog Bookslut and author (The Dead Ladies Project and The Creative Tarot), pulls no punches, her prose most pointed when unspooling a string of excuses feminists give for not embodying their ideals: “The corporations we work for poison the earth, fleece the poor, make the super rich even more rich, but hey. Fuck it. We like our apartments, we can subscribe to both Netflix and Hulu, the health insurance covers my SSRI prescription, and the white noise machine I just bought helps me sleep at night.”
While Crispin insists on a more radical feminism, she asks that our thinking, especially in internet discourse, become more nuanced. Rather than attacking those who don’t agree with us—immediately calling for people’s heads (or jobs) if they use the wrong word or tell a bad joke—she urges we stop to listen. Crispin is calling for a deeper, more humanist feminism, one worth marching for.
There’s nothing like an ongoing political apocalypse to send me back to the realm of historical non-fiction, seeking advice, wisdom, or, more usually, escape. Few authors in the historical sphere offer those in as ready supply as Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose Pulitzer-winning Lincoln biography Team Of Rivals opened my eyes to the complicated, fascinating political world of the pre-Civil War U.S., as well as instilling in me a new appreciation for our savvy, resilient, and annoyingly talkative 16th president. I’m currently working my way through Goodwin’s latest, The Bully Pulpit, which threads the lives and careers of Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft together, and through them a wider look at the journalistic and industrial reforms that were fought for at the dawn of the 20th century. Roosevelt is the obvious draw, a flamboyant, often-tragic figure who overcame a lifetime of privilege to become a tireless fighter for reform. But I find his former friend and sidekick Taft the more compelling subject: quiet, patient, and, in Goodwin’s detailed but never dry telling, a far more interesting character than the “fat guy stuck in a bath tub” meme that’s become his unfortunate historical shorthand. I’m always going to be drawn to those forced into power without really desiring it, and Taft—whose true life ambition was to be chief justice of the Supreme Court, not president—was essentially forced into the White House against his better judgement at the outgoing Roosevelt’s insistence.
Meanwhile, Goodwin also works in the story of the rise of the reformer journalists at magazines like McClure’s, writers who worked tirelessly to shape public opinion through the simple act of reporting the truth of hideous working conditions and political injustices. In an age of “alternative facts” and the draining slog of the 24-hour news cycle, their struggles and victories are vitally inspirational, reminding me that the press has a sacred duty to help keep the public informed and safe.