I was reading On The Road the day that Robert and I met. He noticed and told me it was his favorite book. I know that sounds like a line, but seven years later I can tell you it really is his favorite book. He asked me how I liked it and I told him I did, a lot. He told me he was surprised because none of the girls he knew that read it liked it. He told me it was a masculine book. I mean, I guess. For a long time most books were written by, for, and about men. I don’t know if this is still the case, statistically speaking. But I was an English major — I didn’t exactly have the option of refusing to read or enjoy the Western canon.
We spent the early months of knowing each other trading paperbacks back and forth: Hemingway, Camus, Delillo, and more Kerouac. He transcribed Neruda into emails. We pushed Bob Dylan up onto a pedestal with our other favorite writers. If you asked me back then about my top five favorite authors, it would be those first four, plus Dostoevsky. Later that year I would add Faulkner to the list. For as long as I can remember, I’ve identified with middle-aged men, stuck in small towns. I always thought this was because my dad raised me on country and folk songs. Now I know it’s because I grew up in a world where the buildings and books and songs were all built by men.
I’m not saying I didn’t read and enjoy books by women. I wrote my thesis on a trio of books by Mexican-American writers, including Under the Feet of Jesus*, by Helena Maria Viramontes. The first time I read Play It as It Lays, by Joan Didion, I spent a week driving around in a daze, but a good daze. But I can’t think of anymore books by women that I adored then without hiking to the bookshelf, which proves my point that I did not seek them out.
I didn’t become aware of my bias until recently, in 2010, when APW selected a book by Elizabeth Gilbert for its book club read for the month. Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame. Eat, Pray, Love was published in 2006, and was in the hands of commuting women everywhere by 2008. The movie came out in August 2010. In October 2010, I had not read it. Not because I don’t read bestsellers (I do, all the time, usually on airplanes). Not because it didn’t look interesting (it did). I didn’t read it because it looked like Chick Lit, and I thought I was too good for it. But when APW announced Gilbert’s more recent book, Committed, as the choice, the site also ran a great post with the subtitle, If Women Like It, It Must Be Stupid, debunking the myth that Gilbert is not a respectable writer. It turns out that Gilbert wrote award-winning novels and stories from a male perspective before she ever got the advance that let her travel the world. She wrote for men’s magazines. She gave a TED talk. She is a real writer. Huh. I didn’t read Eat, Pray, Love, but I did read Committed, and I thought it was great.
Not too long after this, I was reading about James Frey (I have a lot to say about James Frey — that will be a years-belated post later this month, I think) and I learned that between 2004 and 2010, Oprah’s Book Club didn’t include a single author. In 2006, speaking of having his novel Corrections selected for Oprah’s Book Club, Jonathan Franzen said, “The problem in this case is some of Oprah’s picks. She’s picked some good books, but she’s picked enough schmaltzy, one dimensional ones that I cringe, myself, even though I think she’s really smart and she’s really fighting the good fight.” I don’t know if these two facts are related, but I think so. And I’m guilty of snubbing Oprah’s Book Club myself, despite not really knowing what books are on the holy list. My Oprah snobbery is the same as my Elizabeth Gilbert snobbery. I read serious books, or at least funny books. I didn’t consciously think that only men could write serious books or funny books, but that little misogynistic thought lived inside me. I don’t know how else to explain the fact that I went from reading Madeleine L’Engle as a girl to not being able to name more than two women authors I love as an adult.
I’ve spent the last two years repenting of my sins. Mostly by reading Barbara Kingsolver. My grandma recommended The Poisonwood Bible to me years ago, and I ignored her, even though my grandma’s recommendations are always sound. Like Eat, Pray, Love, I still haven’t read The Poisonwood Bible. But I have read The Bean Trees, and Homeland, and Animal Dreams, and The Lacuna, and she’s worked her way from being someone I ignore at the library, to a top five desert island favorite author.
I rarely read book reviews on other blogs. But, as further proof of my contrition, I might post an occasional discussion or excerpt from a book I’m reading here. I’ll try to make it interesting. In the meantime, what’s your Desert Island Top Five**?
*These are not Amazon Affiliate links for which I receive any compensation. I don’t even think that’s possible in Illinois. I just wanted to post links to books I love.
**I have never ended a blog post with a question that’s not rhetorical. It feels weird and needy. Please answer me.