Sometime during the initial rush of cold this past winter, I decided to start reading again. Not the daily newspaper that I still have delivered to my front door or the New York Times that I read on my iPhone — or, God forbid, the social media platforms to which I nominally contribute and feel obligated to follow — but books.
I wanted, again, to read the way my mother taught me, to read the way my father modeled, to read the way I used to before kids and a career consumed two full decades of my waking hours.
That is why, last November, I began to sit with a book every day:
- Under an afghan,
- In my favorite chair,
- With a dog beside me.
I converted the blank inside cover of my journal to a list of books and authors read. Soon a pattern emerged that has since become a goal. With rare exception — usually when I am overworked and crave escape — I am reading outside of my white, middle-class, feminist experience.
“Books were my pass to personal freedom,” Oprah Winfrey has said. My intentional selection of books has become my passport to places I otherwise might not go, a chance to see the world through the eyes and experiences of different ages, ethnicities and nationalities.
A club without commitments
Inspired and eager to talk about books again, I wondered: What are other women reading? That led me back to the Annual Book Club, an idea I had tried twice before, years ago. The idea is to get the benefits of a book club without the monthly commitment — and the stress, for busy women, of turning pleasure reading into a competition or have-to chore.
Here is how the Annual Book Club works:
- My friend Sara and I each picked a friend to co-host with us.
- The four co-hosts each chose an additional book-loving friend, forming a group of eight people that combined old friends with “friends not yet met.”
- We asked each woman to compile a list of up to five books. Why did she choose them? How would she convince us to read them? What did these books mean to her?
- Each of us brought eight hard copies of our lists, leaving us with a year’s worth of literature and literate non-fiction.
We met at my house on a sunny Saturday afternoon — an English professor, a retired librarian, three marketing writers, an art director and me, a former journalist who still loves to write — and for three hours shared stories about our reading habits, our lives and our learnings in late middle age.
Unlike the aging stars in Book Club, a film that is drawing only middling reviews, we did not drink wine, or talk about sex, or ruminate over our frustrations with men. This was our time, as readers, as working women who make time for books, and we took our assignments seriously.
Below are some titles I may never have encountered, in the words of the wise women who recommended them:
Rise to Greatness, by David Von Drehle: This book covers 1862. Each chapter reviews one month of that year. The Civil War raged, the government fell apart and was broke, Europe wanted to cash in on the cotton trade, and the two political parties didn’t agree on anything. If you think today’s politics are negatively charged and the country divided, this book will show you that politics has been this way before.
The Bookseller of Kabul, by Asne Seierstad: This book is a look at Afghanistan during and after the Taliban came into power. It tells the story of a man who sells books for three decades in difficult circumstances. It covers some of the istory of the country as well as depicts the culture of Afghanistan and the plight of Afghan women. The author lived with an Afghan family for six weeks. She wrote the book in literary form, but it is based on real events or what was told her by people who took part in those events.
The King Must Die, by Mary Renault: Called “one of the truly fine historical novels of modern times” by the New York Times, this is the first book I’ve found that really humanizes Greek mythology. It turns the story of Theseus, who slays the Minotaur at Knossos, Crete, into a fascinating novel about ancient Greece. Told from Theseus’ point of view, the book makes him real. Every turn in the story is engrossing, and it brings the myth to life.
A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City, by Drew Philp: At age 23, Drew Philp, a skinny white kid and recent college graduate, bought a derelict house in a burned out, bulldozed area of Detroit and became an urban homesteader. He spent six years restoring an uninhabitable Queen Anne house in an area with, initially, no city services such as running water and electricity, rampant crime, racial tension and class warfare. He had no prior skills. This is a personal story of a young man’s quest to create meaning and forge community in a place most had given up on.
Present over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simple, More Soulful Way of Living, by Shauna Neiquist: This book was born out of a crisis in the author’s life. She was so busy being a successful Christian author and speaker that she was missing her own life. The way she was living didn’t mesh with the values she espoused — spending unhurried time with family and friends, making a home for her family, valuing people for who they are, not what they accomplish. So she made a change. She started saying no. And to her surprise, the world did not end.
Patchinko, by Min Jin Lee: In the early 1900s, teenaged Sunja, the adored daughter of a crippled fisherman, falls for a wealthy stranger at the seashore near her home in Korea. He promises her the world, but when she discovers she is pregnant — and that her lover is married — she refuses to be bought. Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle, sickly minister passing through on his way to Japan. But her decision to abandon her home, and to reject her son’s powerful father, sets off a dramatic saga that will echo down through the generations.
And, from me, a final observation: I have noticed since last winter that reading brings out my truest self, a quiet, disciplined person who naturally prefers heartfelt conversation to a party. At 60 — my children grown, my parents dead, my workaholic ambition laid to rest — I am making peace with who I really am. Reading books both serves and inspires that process.