R.J. Pettersen lives in Washington, D.C.
Between May 2009 and May 2010, I read 4 books by female authors and 33 books by male authors. Many of these male authors depicted women as mysterious or confusing. For example: In Faulkner’s Light in August, the protagonist doesn’t understand menstruation, so he kills a sheep. I’m dying to know if this came up on Oprah.
Would a woman react to menstruation by shooting an animal? Probably not. It was clear—based on the 33:4 ratio and the punctuated sheep—that I should read more books by women, so I decided to devote my summer reading list exclusively to books by female authors.
While I approached my plans enthusiastically, my execution of the list was sloppy from the start. For instance, I noted one of the books on my list as “The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, by Catherine Anne Porter.” Despite this typo—a portent, for sure—I read Jane Eyre and, on the 50th anniversary of its first printing, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Then, while running home from work one day, I injured my knee. I began a nightly physical therapy regimen. During long, self-imposed delays between stretches, I sat on the floor and followed box scores for the players on my fantasy baseball team. I didn’t read. More than once, I wore a “wife-beater” and, sprawled beside mounds of unfolded laundry, followed an extra-innings Padres game at 2:00 AM. On the bookshelf behind me, the “U” in “Updike” grinned its shit-eating grin. Goodbye, Middlemarch—hello, Manatees.
Why did this happen? It’s clear that laziness is at the heart of the matter; but I’m wondering whether that laziness is run-of-the-mill, 21st Century Caveman laziness, or whether it’s something more complicated—something rooted in boredom or apathy. And “who’s to say,” as Miriam just asked, “that the second is mutually exclusive from the first?”
That’s the meat of this post, so it’s fitting that the dead sheep has the answers to these questions. It’s clear that Faulkner’s protagonist in Light in August, Joe Christmas, isn’t a verbal communicator. By killing a sheep, Joe may be asking, “Who are women, anyway?”
As you can imagine, this question emerged often between May 2009 and May 2010. Goodbye, Columbus—another book I read last year—responds with another question: “Who cares?” But a different, more insidious response is far more interesting: the kind assumed in One Hundred Years of Solitude, when a mysterious young woman ascends to heaven while folding laundry. As with Faulkner’s sheep, this detail concerns not just women themselves, but also their inner lives or private worlds. For Gabriel García Márquez and Joe Christmas, the answer may be, “Who knows?”
I’m wondering whether sitting on my ass was my way of combining these two attitudes. This possibility intrigues me because—while holding me culpable for the same biases as Gabriel García Márquez and, to a lesser degree, Philip Roth—it exonerates me from personal failure and connects me, along with many other men and women, to a broader, more culturally significant phenomenon. Historically, our society has associated women with the domestic sphere and men with the outside world. The outside world is judged, by people and by the canons they create, to be more important than the domestic sphere. Who are women, then? Because their worlds are deemed insignificant: “Who cares?” And because our cultural works don’t often describe these worlds: “Who knows?”
I may have stopped reading books by women, but I didn’t stop reading entirely. Rather, in an effort to become a “Man of the World,” I delved into male-authored nonfiction. I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, for instance, and became picky about my yogurt. I also grew enthusiastic about the bulk spice section at Yes! Organic Market. The irony of this isn’t lost on me: a book by a man brought me closer than ever to the domestic sphere. My turmeric is cheap and delicious: who cares? And who knows: if I’d read Middlemarch instead of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I’d probably have a better understanding of the human condition.
That said, my argument is rendered suspect by the fact that laziness—rather than blatant sexism, or a “woman’s place is in the home” mentality—derailed my all-female reading list. There’s a reason people watch “Two and a Half Men,” and I’m well aware of that: I was tired from working. This fact doesn’t make me feel any less guilty.