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What I’m Reading (No. 114): the ladies’ turn
In the midst of a large-scale quarantine, the obvious place for this newsletter to turn would be to pandemic reads. Plenty of other outlets have done that, though. While I have a few related thoughts worth sharing, I’d rather lead off this week’s edition on what’s being lost in this crazy news cycle: Women’s History Month.
Since the 1980s, March has been a time for celebrating and recognizing the oft-overlooked accomplishments of women throughout history. In my work with Art of Manliness, the majority of books I’m sent are written by men, which means much of what I read is by men. This month, though, and moving forward, I’m making a concerted effort to balance the scales.
For the last couple weeks I’ve been reading and enjoying Little Women; once I’m done with that I have a fun book on my shelf about Louisa May Alcott’s role in the Civil War. (Which means you can expect an Alcott edition of this newsletter in a couple weeks.)
And just a couple days ago I finished Celeste Headlee’s excellent new book, Do Nothing. I first encountered her work in the excellent documentary audio series MEN. I’ll get to that title in just a bit.
But first, a list.
Some Women Historians to Read
When it comes to the publishing industry, women authors are especially overlooked in the history genre. But, the tide seems to be slowly turning. As I look over at my collection, there are a growing number of women’s names on the spines. Here’s a few that stand out:
Doris Kearns Goodwin. She’s an American treasure. Team of Rivals is most well-known, but all her books are great.
Jill Lepore. I’ve actually only read her outstanding articles, but I am very excited to dig into These Truths before too long. All of her books are well reviewed and highly respected.
Julia Baird. Her book about Queen Victoria is one of the better biographies I’ve ever read.
Drew Gilpin Faust. This Republic of Suffering is cited in just about every Civil War book to come after it. It’s gone from new title to a classic of the genre as quickly as any book possibly could.
I could go on. I won’t for now, in the interest of length. Bottom line: if you’re into history, there are a ton of great women to read!
Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving by Celeste Headlee (2020, 264 pages)
“These are the essential qualities of a human being: social skills and language, a need to belong that fosters empathy, rule-making, music, and play. We excel at these things, and we need them in order to be healthy.”
Notice what’s not in that list: work. Celeste makes a powerful argument that, contrary to what our modern world would have you believe, work is not a requirement for a flourishing existence. Of course, the vast majority of us need to work in order foster the sort of lifestyle we enjoy and are accustomed to, but there’s not much of a legit reason to put as much focus on productivity and efficiency as many of us do.
In the first part of the book, Celeste gives us a bit of her personal story, mixed in with a really interesting look at how work has functioned for humans, and especially Americans, in the last couple centuries. Our culture is vastly different from others when it comes to our obsession with growth and production. As for the modern pace of work, plenty of authors take the bait and blame the tech itself, but Celeste is more nuanced than that — there’s plenty of blame to be spread out across a number of factors.
In the second part of the book, she gives us what she believes are the elements of a lifestyle that brings true joy rather than stress and anxiety. Instead of demonizing words like “idleness,” “leisure,” and even “laziness,” Celeste calls for us to actually embrace them. I’m here for that!
In a quarantined existence, it’s tempting for me to pull my hair at the decrease in “production.” As I’m sure it is for everyone who has a busier, more stir-crazy household right now than they did a few weeks ago. Which is why this book is perfect for this place in time. Turns out a pandemic can be a really interesting opportunity to explore our relationship with our work, our family, our social connections, and our larger community.
What are you missing more of: Your productivity and efficiency? Your uninterrupted hours in the office? Or your time with your neighbors, your parents, your friends? The once-insignificant chit-chats with your local baristas and bartenders and retail clerks of all sorts (which no longer seem so vapid)? The answer is obvious when you really think about it and Celeste does a great job revealing it. The “unproductive” moments of our lives are often the most nourishing.
Pandemic-y Bookish Tidbits
—I won’t be giving you a pandemic reading list . . . at least not yet. But perhaps nothing in the genre is as moving as Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars. It takes place in Colorado, and contrasts our beautiful natural landscape with the harsh and numbing reality of mass death. It’s a feeling that’s surprisingly easy to relate to right now (in small part, of course) . . . I went for a couple runs this week in shorts and a t-shirt in the midst of perfect temperatures and blue skies. It felt weird to have such visual and kinetic beauty in the midst of a catastrophe borne by an invisible enemy. Anyways, give the book a read for a sobering but also rather touching look at real life after a deadly pandemic. It’s an apocalypse book that reads like literature (in a good way, to be clear).
—I couldn’t help but think of the legendary Richard Clarke’s most recent book, Warnings. In it, he details seemingly alarmist predictions from the recent past (Hurricane Katrina, the Fukushima disaster, the 2008 recession) that turned into damning realities, and also tries to foresee some looming dangers ahead. One of the chapters, of course, is about the global threat of pandemic. This was one danger that scientists agreed was very real, but governments were slow to pick up on. Obviously. Giving it a read right now may not be such a good idea, but maybe add it to your list for later on.
—In the midst of the anxiety of the unknown, one of the things that reliably gives me solace is seeking out more information. Usually that’s in the form of a history book. (Go figure, I know.) After the head-scratching 2016 election, I think that’s why I sought out presidential histories and started my bio-of-every-POTUS project. To that end, I’m a little more interested in pandemic history than pandemic fiction. A few reads I’m looking at in the next several months include: The Ghost Map (I love Steven Johnson), Flu, The Great Influenza, Spillover, The Great Mortality, Justinian’s Flea, A Journal of the Plague Year. That’s plenty to keep me busy for a while. I’d sure rather give my attention to a book than to the endless refreshing of news/social media apps, even though that’s mostly what I’ve been doing . . .
Okay, that’s plenty for this week. More than I intended, in fact. Anyways, I’d love to hear what you’re reading, how you’re dealing with it all, etc. Thank you so much for your time and inbox space.