Ruined by a Book
young girl was ever ruined by a book,î confidently declared novelist and
critic William Dean Howells, defending realist fiction in a turn-of-the-century
version of the culture wars.
Gentle reader, he was wrong. I myself was ruined by booksóbut then rescued by other books.
At the brink of adolescence, I turned to books to figure out how to be a girl. My guides were the authors of ìteen age romances,î most memorably Rosemary du Jardin (only later did I suspect this might be a pen name). My girlfriends and I eagerly awaited each new romance. Analyzing the plots with an attention to detail that would have amazed our English teachers, we discussed the strategy and ethics of teenage romance. Was a girl obligated to accept her first offer for the dance or else stay home, as my father insisted? Should girlfriends hold to their plans spend Saturday night together even if a boy called for date? Was it better go out with a boy you didn't really like than to endure the disgrace of a Saturday night without a date? Was it lying to stuff tissues in your bra? And then there was Seventeen Magazine, with its flawless models and detailed counsel on hair, clothes, makeup, parents, and boyfriends.Ý We learned how to talk to boys: Takeóor fakeóan interest in cars and sports.Ý Get Him talking about himself. (Fittingly enough for these objects of devotion, ìHeî was often capitalized.)
And we pondered endlessly the all-consuming issue of Reputation, the struggle to gain and maintain that elusive middle ground between the uncool ìprudeî and the disgraced ìslutî. We pored over the euphemistic prose to try to discern what these girls were actually doing with their boyfriends, to find counsel for our own negotiations of pleasure and danger. Writing to the advice column of Seventeen, some readers boldly inquired about things we burned to know.Ý I remember these: if you and your boyfriend both wore braces, would they lock together when you kissed? (Unlikely, the columnist admitted, but summoned a long list of other reasons to keep your mouth closed on those kisses.) What exactly, short of ìgoing all the way,î could a ìgood girlî do? (Not much, we learned glumly. Under the prevailing domino theory of sex, one thing led inexorably to the next, and before you knew it, youíd be ìin trouble.î) What did it mean if you found yourself having more fun with the girls on the cheerleading squad than with your boyfriend? (Youíd get over it, the reply counseled, once those hormones really kicked in.)
So reading taught me how to be a girl.Ý I got my hair to ìflip.î I rolled up my skirts at the waist, in conformity to the fashion spreads in Seventeen, and in defiance of my high schoolís dress code. I lived down the disgrace of being a ìbrainî by making the cheerleading squad, and learning to keep my mouth shut in class. And I tirelessly sought out books that would tell me more about sex than I had learned from Rosemary du Jardin. I read Mary McCarthyís The Group in stealth, sneaking it out of my parentsí hiding place. While babysitting, I discovered Henry Miller and Harold Robbins, heart pounding as I looked for the good parts. These told me something about female desireósomething we didnít hear much about in Seventeenóeven as they reinforced the messages of teenage romance: women got what they wanted by being what men wanted.
And then came the womenís movement, and I read my way into a new kind of womanhood. Spring 1969: I opened my issue of New York Magazine to find it had been given over to the first issue of a new magazine called Ms. I loved this powerful renaming, with its declaration that women were not to be defined by their marital status. I read the work of a new breed of bad girls, and soon they became my guides. Kate Millettís Sexual Politics challenged the wisdom of my college English teachers: Millett denounced the critical assumptions that explained why only Emily Dickinson and Willa Cather made it on to their syllabi. Novels like Doris Lessingís The Golden Notebook offered us female protagonists writing their own lives, outside the boundaries of the marriage plot. In books like Germaine Greerís The Female Eunuch and Ingrid Bengisís Combat in the Erogenous Zone, women reclaimed sexuality on their own termsóangry, joyous, defiant. In The Dialectic of Sex, Shulamith Firestone argued that biological reproduction was outdated. Sisterhood is Powerful, proclaimed Robin Morgan, poet and compiler of a hefty anthology of writing by women. The talk Iíd always savored with women friends now turned to new purposes in consciousness-raising groups. ìThe personal is political,î the student movement of the 1960s had declared, and the womenís movement took up that insight as creed. Some second-wave feminists argued for taking it the next step, declaring ìFeminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice." Others maintained a staunch agnosticism on the meaning of desire and sexual expression, but held up the ideal of the ìwoman-identified woman,î a woman who resisted the male standards of a sexist society by affirming and valuing other women. We struggled to forge new relationships with our mothers, sisters, daughters, and friends, and to find women mentors and models. In womenís bars and restaurants, at dances and concerts, I joined other women in celebrating ìwomenís cultureî and in claiming public spaces for charged new explorations of relationships with other women. Feminists started writing their own stories, published and circulated in a new alternative reading community. I wrote the monthly newsletter for the Womenís Liberation Union of Rhode Island, painstakingly typing it on a friendís prized Selectricóa typewriter with proportional spacing!--and later measured copy and pressed Letterset headlines into place in the tiny office of off our backs in Dupont Circle.
So what's on your shelves? You are what you read! Or, you might become what you read, or read yourself into becoming someone else. Well, not quite, or not only. But take it from a woman who's been ruined and rescued by books--reading is risky business.