The project begins

Brian accuses me of having a used bookstore problem, and he’s absolutely correct. I am a bit of an addict.

While I was firmly a luddite pre-Brian, I have learned to embrace my smart TV, my iPhone, my Google drive, cable access to Turner Classic Movies, and the laptop on which I’m writing these words.

But I have not been able to embrace eBook technology. I don’t judge it – I can see the convenience of carrying a LOT of books on one teeny little device, and any technology that encourages reading is something I can get behind. But it’s not for me – I need to feel the book in my hand. And while new books can be lovely, used books have a history behind them.

I love reading the name written in the front cover, or, even better, a personalized stamp. I love finding makeshift bookmarks in used books – photographs, old receipts, business cards from international hotels. While I’m no rare book collector, I love finding books with a particularly obscure cover design.

I rely on different shops for different purposes – the Book Nook is great for loading up on a lot of cheap mass market paperbacks at once, whereas the Book Escape has a lot of hard to find trade paperbacks. Ukazoo is a great “all around” shop, and Second Edition buys your books for generous store credit.

What does this have to do with me starting a blog? As Elle Woods would say, “Oh, I have a point, I promise!” [screen grab withheld due to copyright infringement concerns – but hopefully you’re envisioning Elle in court with her pointer finger in the air looking up reassuringly at the Honorable Marina R. Bickford].

Brian and I were in Autumn Leaves used bookstore in Ithaca a few weeks ago, and it is a particular favorite of mine, although I can only visit every couple of years now. Lots of their fiction section is coming from professors’ personal and professional libraries, so it’s brilliantly curated. And I came across a book that I didn’t know existed: Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo.

Now, I was well familiar with Ntozake Shange herself. I’ve read for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf multiple times (studied it in college even!). But I thought of her only as a playwright – I was ashamed not to know that she also wrote novels.

Why did no one tell me this? I went to a women’s college and majored in English literature. I had gone through seemingly every book list of women writers, minority writers, and 20th century writers on over the last couple of years. So how was I unfamiliar with Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo?

Well, lists of essential books by African American writers tend to focus on nonfiction, and lists of essential novels by 20th century women tend to focus on white women, and when Shange finds herself on any list at all, it’s for colored girls that makes the list. Like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple or Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God or Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, Shange is remembered for one singular work.

As I started thinking more about it, plenty of white women have trouble escaping the “one book” thing. Kate Chopin only wrote The Awakening, right? And Pearl S. Buck only wrote The Good Earth? Except, of course, I know they wrote more than that, and I’ve read more, by all the writers I’ve mentioned, except Shange.

I’ve spent my whole life learning about how women’s work and writing is suppressed, and yet I still always seem surprised by it when it happens. Because the quality of the work is not at issue here: Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, while admittedly light on plot, is beautifully written, and no lighter on plot than, say, The Catcher in the Rye.

So, I decided to start building a library specifically dedicated to 20th century women’s literature (primarily novels and short stories). Could I build a library of 300 books by women? What about 500? More than 500? How long would it take to build? And how much longer would it take to read? Would all of the books have the same standard of quality? Who gets to be in the canon is pretty contested space for us as it is, but I didn’t want to just throw any old book I could find written by a lady in there.

For the last 10 years or so, I have been working my way through Feminista’s list of the 100 greatest books written by women in the 20th century (created around 2000 in response to Modern Library’s white-guy-heavy list), and I owned most of those books already.

I had also, without really realizing it, been reading and collecting books left off the list that probably should have been included, so I had a good foundation already. I did some late-night rearranging and dedicated the shelf in the living room to the project pretty much right away. I made a couple runs to some beloved used bookstores to fill some sparser shelves.

I arranged it chronologically, which may cause my actual librarian friends to break out in hives, but that’s how my brain works. I am pretty overwhelmingly visual, and I wanted to see how the century progressed over time and which writers were working more or less as contemporaries.

I ended up with 273 books on the shelf as a beginning. I’ve read about 150 of them, if Goodreads and my memory are to be believed. Not too bad.

So this blog will document my research as I decide what should be in the library, my used book store adventures as I hunt down what I’ve decided I want, and my thoughts as I read my way through what I’ve found. Will I keep it all? Will I reject books along the way? I imagine I will.

I’ll be interested in hearing what my friends think about my choices too – what am I missing? Whose work deserves to be remembered? And whose work doesn’t? Does anyone (really) have a free copy of To Kill a Mockingbird lying around that they want to toss my way, since evidently I borrowed my sister’s copy when I read it? And – most importantly – did I lend any of y’all The Bell Jar? Because it’s missing, and I’m concerned.

8 thoughts on “The project begins

  1. This is exactly my type of project! I’ve been trying to read more classic works by women in the past year and it’s been super enlightening. Looking forward to hearing more about this!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: An Unexpected Potter Party – Building A Women's Library

  3. I did a miniature project like this, not building a whole library but collecting all my absolute favourite books by women authors and placing them in chronological order (by author’s day of birth) on one shelf. Seeing them collected together made it much easier to see them as part of a great history. I look forward to following your project!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It may be the most logically arranged of all my shelves, mostly I approach book arrangements the way I would dinner seating (if I ever did any of those), that is by placing books that may have interesting conversations next to each other…

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Mourning Ntozake Shange – Building A Women's Library

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