Elizabeth Lesser, Reading and Great Books
Elizabeth Lesser makes me hopping mad in Cassandra Speaks. As a Literature major with a Women's Studies concentration, I expected to love this book, but I found myself alternately reading what I already knew or disgusted by Lesser’s bossiness (“Know her name.”) and self-righteous dismissal of anything out of keeping with her ideals.
Yes, women’s voices have been left out of the conversation for too long, but that doesn’t mean that men’s writing has nothing to teach. Lesser writes, “And if Hamlet was considered to be the greatest play in the Western canon, then why were there only two women in the cast…?” In my opinion, Hamlet is a great play (although I prefer Macbeth for reasons I can’t explain) and Shakespeare was well aware of the fact that women’s contributions mattered. In college I wrote a paper - the details of which are no longer crisp in my mind - about the difference between Shakespeare’s plays in which feminine attributes prevail - the comedies - versus the plays with few women or with women who have adopted masculine traits of competitiveness and aggression - the tragedies.
Lesser writes that “Hamlet seemed like the frail one to me - afraid to say what he meant, to take a stand, to do something until it was too late.” Hamlet is not frail - he unapologetically sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths. (Horatio: “So Guildenstern and Rosencrantz go to ‘t.” Hamlet: “Why, man, they did make love to this employment. They are not near my conscience. Their defeat does by their own insinuation grow.”) Hamlet is hyper-aware that he’s a character in a revenge tragedy. He can see the puppet strings and is resisting the role of avenger that is thrust upon him (as it’s thrust upon Laertes and Fortinbras), searching for an alternative to going off half-cocked like Laertes only to end a pawn in someone else’s game. He’s an example of someone caught in a story that he can’t find his way out of - a predicament that is not unfamiliar to many women.
Lesser's oversimplification of significant writers and works of literature leads her to dismiss the gift these books and writers offer. Lesser writes, “Hemmingway (sic) did not move me; war stories were horrendous; and it did matter that Lolita was a book about child abuse.” Of course it mattered that Lolita was a book about child abuse. It mattered to Nabokov, too. That’s the point. It’s not a bonny stroll through pedophilia.
I happen to be reading Reading Lolita in Tehran right now also and Azar Nafisi is eloquent on the power of literature: “... these great works of imagination could help us in our present trapped situation as women. We were not looking for blueprints, for an easy solution, but we did hope to find a link between the open spaces the novels provided and closed ones we were confined to. I remember reading to my girls Nabokov’s claim that ‘readers were born free and ought to remain free.’”
Nafisi finds hope and empowerment in reading Lolita: “Nabokov had taken revenge against our own solipsizers; he had taken revenge on the Ayatollah Khomeini… They had tried to shape others according to their own dreams and desires, but Nabokov, through his portrayal of Humbert, had exposed all solipsists who take over other people’s lives…”
I’m a big fan of palatable books - my top three read-agains are Hotel du Lac, Excellent Women and A Room with a View. Low stress, nothing-much-happens stories are my road to joy, so I don’t blame Lesser if she doesn’t love to read Hemingway or war stories. Her not loving them doesn’t make them invalid any more than books dismissed as chick-lit are invalid.
I cringed when Lesser describes the meditation group she hosted for 9/11 first responders. She acknowledges that “it takes time and empathy and artistry to connect with anyone, and especially someone who had spent a lifetime building up his defenses and denigrating ‘girl talk.’” Yet she hammers the 9/11 first responders in her meditation group with reasons they should open up emotionally. “I told these 9/11 first responders that they had been traumatized. But not much I said seemed to make a difference. I appealed to them as fathers, sons, husbands. I talked about the undervalued power of emotional intelligence. I shared statistics about the role of repressed emotions and the lack of communication in domestic violence, divorce, addiction, suicide.” She seems to be met primarily by a wall of resistance. Maybe if she’d read them Hemingway she could have reached them on a more emotional level.
Shortly after college graduation I went on a walk with my roommate. He’d just broken up with his girlfriend and was feeling low. We talked about books and he said he’d been reading Hemingway. I said, “But Hemingway’s women are so unsympathetic.” He said, “Sometimes a guy needs that.” I’ve never forgotten that moment because I realized that if I were a guy who’d just broken up with his girlfriend, Hemingway might be the voice I truly needed. And if I were a man who’d been schooled in strong silence and had just been involved in a scene of tragedy, pain and fear, Hemingway, again, might be exactly the voice I needed.
Thinking about that lesson and Lesser’s dismissal of Heminway, I reread "In Another Country," my favorite Hemingway short story. I hadn’t read it since high school and I found myself tearing up as I read. It’s short, the sentences are simple and subdued and yet the emotional pain of the wounded soldier is palpable in what’s not said. I remember my sophomore year English teacher, Mr. Novo, asking us what would make a person focus on the minute physical details of his life? (“There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers.”) The reason, if I remember Mr. Novo’s explanation correctly, was to focus the mind on manageable details in order to block out the unmanageables - the war that was always there and the insomnia-inducing fear of death. All of us can relate to existential dread. Maira Kalman (♥) writes, “What can I tell you? The realization that we are ALL (you, me) going to die and the attending disbelief — isn’t that the central premise of EVERYTHING? It stops me DEAD in my tracks a DOZEN times a day. Do you think I remain FROZEN? NO. I spring into action. I find meaningful distraction.”
Stories can help us feel seen and help us know ourselves, like the students in Reading Lolita in Tehran who, because of their own experience of oppression, actually see Lolita despite Humbert’s manipulative narrative.
Lesser seems defensive and petulant about her literary tastes. ("What about the kinds of books I loved? The ones about intimate relationships, women's friendships, and emotional catharsis? Best not to mention those books in my honors English class.")
There’s nothing wrong with having favorite stories that are personally meaningful and can act as charms against fear or a steadying friend during difficult times or offer just plain old joy. And they don’t have to be books that impress English teachers.
My favorite part of Cassandra Speaks was Lesser’s suggestion that we make lists of 20 Books that Changed My Life from Childhood Onward and 15 Memoirs that Helped Me Become More Comfortable in My Own Skin. Lists are fun. Books are fun. Here are my lists, made quickly off the top of my head and in no particular order.
26 Books that Changed My Life from Childhood Onward
Beloved, Toni Morrison
Dalva, Jim Harrison
Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry
A Room with a View, E.M. Forster
Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison
Sula, Toni Morrison
Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle
Backlash, Susan Faludi
A History of Last Night’s Dream, Rodger Kamenetz
Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson
The Mind on Fire, Robert Richardson
Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, Robert Richardson
9 Modern Day Muses (and a Bodyguard), Jill Badonsky
Loving What Is, Byron Katie
Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown
INFJ Revolution, Lauren Sapala
Quiet, Susan Cain
Beyond Geography, Frederick Turner
The Inner Sky, Steven Forrest
The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron
The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers
Soulcraft, Bill Plotkin
If Women Rose Rooted, Sharon Blackie
Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg
The Western Canon, Harold Bloom
15 Memoirs and Biographies That Helped Me Become More Comfortable in My Own Skin
My Life on the Road, Gloria Steinem
Revolution from Within, Gloria Steinem
When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson
H is for Hawk, Helen McDonald
For You Mom, Finally, Ruth Reichl
Arbitrary Stupid Goal, Tamara Shopsin
Vanessa Bell, Frances Spalding
Traveling with Pomegranates, Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor
Deceived with Kindness, Angelica Garnett
Me, Katharine Hepburn
Then Again, Diane Keaton
Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
Big Magic, Liz Gilbert
Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life, Roxana Robinson