Sunday, March 12, 2017

Rediscovering my spine

I have a friend who sends me dozens of links each week. Most of them relate to women and feminism, books and libraries, or social progress. This week, as part of a bundle of International Women’s Day-related links, she sent me an article about a bookstore that, as a form of awareness raising, turned all man-authored titles spine in, leaving only woman-authored titles spine out. The description of the result is memorable: the shelves were “bleached into anonymity.” (You can read the article here.)

I remarked to Pat that, had I done the same thing, my shelves wouldn’t change very drastically because I read so much writing by women; and further, I predict that if she did the same thing, her shelves would be like mine. I don’t say this to be smug or superior; in fact, in my pursuit of graduate education, my reading habits have often worked against me — which I feel underscores the point of the bookstore’s action.

Every so often someone send me a list like “Have you read the top 100 books of the twentieth century?” or “How many of the world’s best books have you read?” — a complication of  “top books” that invites readers to tick off the titles they’ve read. Something I find illuminating about these lists is that I’ve rarely read more than a third of the books listed, and often significantly fewer than that. That's mainly because 1) I read a great deal of Canadian fiction and 2) I read predominantly female writers. Not exclusively, obviously, but the majority of fiction I read, even if I exclude the children’s and YA reading I’ve been doing lately, is written by women.

My exchange with Pat got me thinking, though. How many other women readers would this be true for? Pat is a little more than a decade older than I am, but she graduated from university the year I started. So I wonder whether she and I managed to study at the right moment so that we read women’s writing in balance with men’s writing, or even more than men’s writing. Will a moment like that ever exist again? Because in canonical literature and in popular publishing, men still dominate: men’s books are reviewed more often than women’s books are, male reviewers dominate the critical landscape, and women writers are still treated as anomalies when they win awards or write important, culture-changing books. They are also routinely dismissed for the topics they write about, for the opinions they hold, and for their readership.

The bookstore’s project was to represent gender inequality visually. But changing that inequality is a gigantic task. How do we even begin? Is it enough just to keep reading? Or is it time to speak out?

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