Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Changing the World, One Book Recommendation at a Time

Over on Facebook, my friend Bryan reminds me that I recommended Margaret Atwood to him, specifically The Handmaid's Tale: "I read it after you recommended it to me in a letter. It was in the summer of 1989 while I was working at a summer camp in Eva, TN. I thought it was a great book. I'd like to read more of her writings. There's just so many books I want to read and so little time."

I have no memory of that letter. Similarly, another friend says that she read The Handmaid's Tale after I insisted that she must, and that book changed her life. She said that book made her understand the importance of reproductive rights for women and that she'd never take those for granted again. She says that we had many conversations where I argued valiantly that without the right to control when and if we reproduce, all other women's rights are meaningless.

I probably did argue fiercely. I argued about many things fiercely back in my younger days. I still agree with my 19 year old self on many things, but I'm feeling a bit more exhausted these days. But it's strange to me that I have no memory of these discussions.

My friend went on to work in state government. I remember working with her to overturn the laws that said a married man couldn't be charged with raping his wife. You may remember that I wrote about that experience earlier on this blog, in this blog post. She worked on a lot of legislation that tried to improve the lives of women.

I wonder how much the Margaret Atwood book shaped those choices.

That time period is getting to be a long time ago, and I certainly can't prove anything. But this morning, I was thinking about how when I was younger, I wanted to be the writer who wrote those books and poems. I still do.

But I overlook how important a force I can be in recommending life changing books to other people. If I was a young Sociology grad student, I'd try to create some kind of study to determine how much reading choices affect social justice movements. People have done similar studies with song lyrics, so it must be doable.

But I'm not a young grad student, so I'll keep reading, keep recommending. In this time period which sees the 30th anniversary of the Iranian takeover of the American embassy and the 20 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it's important to remember that social justice movements sometimes rise and fall on the chance word or action (or book recommendation?). For a fascinating essay on the hopefulness of that idea, read Roger Cohen's piece in yesterday's The New York Times. I love this sentence of his: "The hinge of history hangs on a heartbeat."

Of course, The Handmaid's Tale reminds us of how quickly human progress towards justice can be eroded. It's an important cautionary tale, and it seems just as relevant now as it did 25 years ago.

Since I haven't ever posted it here, here's my poem, "Progress," inspired by my memories of working to get rid of the marital rape bill. It was published here in Clapboard House, where there's a photo of the statue--very nicely done!


The statue, a tribute to Confederate
Womanhood, keeps her bronze eyes fixed
on the statehouse, while her metal
children clutch her skirts. Inside,
women throng into the chambers, this once male
bastion of legislative power.
The current law states a husband
cannot be charged with the rape of his wife;
a wife is property, to do with as a man pleases.
Females of all ages bear witness, testify
to the violated sanctity of home and hearth.
Only one senator remains unswayed
by their pleas for a twentieth century view.
He doesn’t approve of racial integration either.

1 comment:

Shefali Shah Choksi said...

What a contemporary issue! i wonder if anything has really changed, irrespective of laws (which, i am convinced, do not cross the threshold of personal space). I talked of the philomela & medusa last week in class and i still believe that some social institutions do cut off tongues of the raped and force beautiful women to turn into monsters.
my poetry on this is too violent and angry and will despoil the page it spills upon.