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My review of Girl With A Pearl Earring has recently been linked to a book list. While I appreciate the link, I must admit it has stirred up in me some unintended ripples.  It’s the title of the list:  ‘101 Books Every Woman Should Read’.

Now I’m always wary about books that are labeled and geared towards one gender.  Like recently I came across a book entitled 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go… makes you wonder what exactly they’re luring you into. Imagine a book called 100 Places Every Man Should Go…

Anyway, back to the list of books every woman should read.  The range is eclectic with the titles neatly categorized.

Just let me list a sample from each of the categories:

The Classics: Frankenstein by Mary Shelly, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, Howards End by E. M. Forster, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, Middlemarch by George Eliot, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf…

Children’s Literature:  Pippi Longstockings by Astrid Lindgren, The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll…

Books into Movies:  The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen…

Books Featuring Familial Relationships:  The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingslover, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, Away by Jane Urquhart…

Books Celebrating the Strength of Women:  Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorn, Babette’s Feast by Isak Dinesen…

Current Literature:  Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen…

Books about Finding Oneself:  Bee Season by Myla Goldberg, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers…

Stories of Real Women: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou,  Amelia: A Life of the Aviation Legend by Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon, Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, The Story of My Life by Helen Keller, Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe by Laurie Lisle…

Banned or Challenged Books:  Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, Of Mice and Men by John Steinback, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

Non-Fiction: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey, On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross,  A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

You get my point.  Sounds like any typical high school and college reading list, but why specify women?

Yes, they’re mostly written by women authors, and many with strong female protagonists.  They depict the journey of self-discovery, of overcoming odds, of seeking meaningful relationships and ideals in a hostile world.  In the non-fiction section there are influential books that have achieved significance in the area of writing, psychology, environmentalism, social justice.

But my query is:  If these books depict the inner journey of women, or portray the poignant reality of their struggles, if they have shed any light on the human race in terms of equality, justice, or existential meaning, are these not all the more reasons for men, or anyone, to read them?

Of course, for the sake of argument, one could point out that the statement “books every woman should read” doesn’t preclude that men should not.  But that’s just being contentious.

Books for women, books for men, why can’t books be just books?  Maybe it has to do with the writing of books, or, step back further, society’s view on male and female authors.

Posting on the Guardian blog, writer and editor Harriet Evans vehemently declares that:

“I’m fed up with seeing some of our best novelists written off as ‘chick lit’ — you don’t see the same belittling line taken with male writers…

It winds me up that books about young women are seen as frivolous and silly, while books about young men’s lives that cover the same topics, are reviewed and debated, seen as valid and interesting contributions to the current social and media scene.

And regarding the reading public, it has been noted that women read more than men, both in the U.S. and the U.K.  With that in mind, Evans goes on to state that:

The truth is, women happily read books (and watch films and TV) aimed primarily at men…. They read thrillers, travel books, biographies – and yet the majority of these books are marketed for men… But men rarely try women’s fiction, because they’ve been conditioned to think they can’t pick up a book with a pink cover.”

Indeed, worthy literature written by women authors are sometimes reduced to ‘romance’ or ‘chick lit’.  Jane Austen is a prime example.  Her incisive social satires, eloquent writing and sense of humor have often been swept aside while the romantic union of the protagonists at the end is given the main focus.  In this way, her work is conveniently labeled as ‘chick lit’, dreaded by male readers, until some brave souls dare to take up the challenge and are floored by her relevance and intelligence.

Virginia Woolf sharply observes in her Cambridge lecture series compiled in A Room Of One’s Own that historically, social norm has always been one that coops up women in the domestic while offering men the world.

Taking her view further, I can understand why the dichotomy, however arbitrary, in male and female writing, their difference in subject matters, subsequently, books for men and books for women.

I have a feeling that if the protagonist of The Catcher In The Rye is called Helen Caulfield, the book could well be dismissed as another trivial version of teen angst, schoolgirl blues, fussing over boys and growing up.  And likely we won’t see it on any reading list.

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