For women's history month, I decided to read two books of fiction by women back to back. The two books that I selected -- Loving Eleanor, The intimate friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok by Susan Wittig Albert and Bull and Other Stories by Kathy Anderson -- did not disappoint. In fact, the two books are both so well written that I remembered why I first fell in love with reading.
Reading has always been an important part of my life. It is how I've always learned about the world and the people in it. In Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters, I write about my love of reading and how it shaped my life. This includes reading every book in the school library when I was a child and reading poetry to patients in an AIDS hospice as a young woman. Reading factored heavily into my coming out as a lesbian. I credit The Women's Room, the classic novel by Marilyn French with turning me into a radical feminist and from there it was just a short leap to becoming a lesbian. As I write in Tea Leaves, my boyfriend (just before I came out) " accused me of loving books more than him."
It is no secret that reading has taken a back seat to just about everything in our smart phone driven information age. But reading remains an important link not only to literacy but to thinking critically.
As Publishers Weekly points out the publishing industry is making necessary changes. In "The Future of Reading" the author states that:
"Smart bricks-and-mortar retailers have figured out that they not only sell books--they sell the experience of buying books, and they are selling it to a connoisseur consumer base that distinguishes between the book as physical object and the book as a container of information."
I would take this thought one step further to say that the joys of reading itself must be publicized and encouraged. Reading is not a necessary evil -- it is fun and joyous. The turn of a phrase and a page registers on the conscious as an effortless activity. And, as when I was a child, the end of a book is a sad thing and often the characters live on in our imaginations.
The two books that I read definitely fit my description of everything that is wonderful about reading. Loving Eleanor, The intimate friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok (Persevero Press), is a beautifully written and richly detailed historical novel that lets the reader fully enter the time span of journalist Lorena Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt's love affair and intimate friendship. The book also chronicles the sacrifices that both women had to make to keep the rumors at bay about their relationship. Hickok left the Associated Press (where she was a highly regarded reporter) because of a conflict of interest with her relationship with Eleanor who was then the first lady. She took government jobs as a writer and was transferred to remote locations. We hear the thoughts of Hickok first hand in the writing of Susan Wittig Albert:
"I wasn't to linger in Washington, where gossip still linked my name with hers. (I would later learn that Princess Alice had exclaimed loudly, and in a fashionable Washington restaurant, "I don't care what they say, I simply cannot believe that Eleanor Roosevelt is a lesbian.")
In Bull and Other Stories (Autumn House Press), lesbian author Kathy Anderson does not address a LGBT audience in most stories but she does explore the "queerness" in the thoughts of married couples toward each other, employees and bosses, of children to their parents and of parents toward their children. And she does so in such beautifully written and intriguing ways, that I was turning the pages without a thought to the world around me.
Her prose is often bitingly funny. In "Dip Me in Honey and Throw Me to the Lesbians," Anderson gives us the thoughts of an upscale "foody" lesbian:
"We are So not losers, Jane thought. This is proof. Look at us, in a fabulous restaurant enjoying ourselves. Take that, ex-lovers. She hoped they were all sitting at home wearing sweatpants and stuffing their fat behinds with pizza and beer, utterly bored with each other and their lives."
Reading these two books reminded me that reading also helps you learn more about yourself, in addition to learning about the world in all of its time dimensions. Reading is like looking in a mirror and seeing things that not only have you never seen before but things you never expected to see.