October 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s & Updates on What to Expect from Here

Friends,

It took some time to figure out what our next group assignment should be.

On the one hand, I wanted to lean in to the election-year “PERSON X VERSUS DEMOCRACY” messaging that pervades our collective consciousness. On the other, I wanted to run — far, far away from it. I don’t know about you, but I tend to make better decisions after I learn from my fear rather than avoiding it. So, in the spirit of that acknowledgement, this month I’d like us to read one or both of the following:

1) Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th-century masterpiece, Democracy in America. Find a translation that works for you. Mine is from Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, and edited by J.P. Mayer (1969). If this is also your version, do yourself a favor and read the Forwards for an interesting bit of historical context — for then, and sadly, for now.

and

2) Tim Marshall’s A Flag Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of National Symbols (July 2016). This book was published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, just prior to our last presidential election. That we are reading it this month is absolutely by design. I trust this is not lost on you. And I hope you find more than one way to think about things a little differently before we have the responsibility of voting again.

Then, about the second half of this post’s title: where we go from here.

No, I don’t mean the country — though believe me when I say that this is very much on my mind and heart — I mean this group. It has been a huge honor to lead our small collection of readers through the first six months of a little book club I launched at the height of a pandemic. I intend to keep our momentum going. But, as with any responsible leader, I must also recognize when things don’t serve us well anymore, and make plans to adapt. So let’s talk structure, shall we?

I’ve been thinking for awhile that the structure of this little group isn’t serving all of us as well as it could. While I’d like to leave ample room for folks to have and continue conversations, both on- and offline, I am not convinced that we need my guided responses at the end of each month. Unless someone has another idea, what I’d like to propose is this:

  1. In the first week of each month, I will still post our books and themes for the month ahead. So, we are in the first week of October now, and I have just shared our October reads in this post. Hopefully that part is self-evident.
  2. In the last week, I will post my much-abridged responses and/or questions as comments to that original post, probably from my other blog account, liftingthevale. This will replace the separate response posts I had been sharing, for several reasons. First, because I grow tired of hearing myself speak (that was never the intention here, and I already know what my own thoughts are); second, because separate responses clutter up the category and tags (web site management is also crucial for what I do); and third, they make it harder to be in true conversation with dedicated readers like you, who are currently asked to respond in a democratic, but messily non-centralized fashion. This can be much improved. I am hopeful the changes I propose will encourage greater, still democratic, engagement for all us.

Again, if someone has another idea for how to make this work, I’m all ears. Can I ask a small favor, though? Let’s deliver feedback about the structure of this group as comments below. It’s good practice for the end of the month anyway, when we’ll meet again to discuss our thoughts on the reads we’ve just picked up. That way, we can make a use-informed decision about how it works (or doesn’t) for the months ahead. Sound like a plan? Great! I’ll see y’all back here in the last week of October. Much love — and bravery — until then. Lord knows we need it.

Like it or Not: An Examination of Something You Probably Weren’t Expecting, in Ways You Weren’t Expecting, and I Don’t Just Mean The Book.

You’ve met an Ove before. Perhaps your Ove has not been a man. Perhaps your Ove has not been Swedish. Perhaps your Ove has not been a neighbor. Perhaps, instead, your Ove looks and sounds and behaves quite differently than the Ove we read about this month in A Man Called Ove. But you’ve met an Ove before.

The question isn’t whether you’ve met one. The question, Dear Readers, is how you’ve responded to that Ove. I mean both in your private thoughts, and in your public words and actions.

Did you figure everything out about that Ove, using information that someone shared with you or information that you so astutely learned or perceived all by yourself? Did you know exactly what you were going to do about that Ove? How you were going to, dare I say it, treat that Ove?

Or rather, did you know nothing about that Ove? Did you realize this right away or did it take time? Was it a slow awakening to the reality that perhaps, just maybe, everything you thought was true turned out to be at least halfway wrong, halfway off-base, halfway totally-and-completely-missing-the-point?

You answered at least one of those questions, didn’t you? Yeah, guess what? You’re an Ove, too. Hence, I return to my original statement. You’ve met an Ove before.

And, if as we’ve just determined, you’ve met an Ove before, mightn’t we all be a little slower with our judgments and a little more empathetic in our responses? From there, accountability becomes easier, and when that happens, love becomes a way of living rather than just a way of feeling. It ceases to be something we just preach and it transforms into something we strive towards doing with great intention. We should all be better Oves.

Let’s put that into more concrete terms. We’ve all been — whether we like it or not — the person who’s been judged too soon, or perhaps incorrectly, or perhaps both. But we’ve all also been — whether we like it or not — the person who’s passed judgment too soon, or perhaps incorrectly, or perhaps both. We’ve all been — whether we like it or not — fallible, wrong, off-base, and desperately and painfully human.

And you know what?

Being human has a funny way of re-grading the moral high ground.

Whether we like it or not.

I know, recognizing this is hard work. Choosing to shift our gaze and revise our action plan(s) after the fact is even harder. But here’s the thing: none of us ever know someone else’s full story — hell, sometimes we don’t even know our own stories — and so, we should not allow ourselves to think or act as if we do.

Does this leave room for making judgments? Yes, of all kinds! The important thing is that we recognize when, where, how, and why we are making them. And then, we must have the humility to recognize when the ways we think and act must change.

How America responds to its systematized racism and the many injustices that creates is the chief “present” example I’m guessing many of you are thinking about, but let’s also acknowledge right now that it’s not a “new” example. It’s just newly relevant to a bunch of folks who, you guessed it, are being called upon to change alongside the rest of us.

(NB: knowing about this for a longer period of time does not necessarily make you a better person. It might in fact inspire some interesting questions in your direction, depending on what you’ve chosen to do with that knowledge. Meanwhile, as we strive to hold each other accountable through love, we must all learn to both accept and allow some grace. This is very important work and we all need all the help we can get.)

For now, that’s all I’ve got to say. And besides, with a book of little stories full of big lessons, what a mistake it would be to clutter up my response. Instead, I’ll open the floor to all you beautiful, bitter, broken Oves out there. Feel free to use the discussion guide after my sign-off if you want some ideas for places to join the conversation, or pick another starting point of your own.

And meanwhile, know that if you have a lot on your hearts and minds, then here I am, a mangy cat, ready and willing to be here for you, even and especially when you think you’re doing just fine on your own, thank you very much.

May 2020 Reading Group Discussion Guide:

  1. What do we make of the juxtaposition of seemingly insignificant details against heart-wrenching, life-altering information throughout the book?
  2. Think of a time where something truly significant happened in your life. How did it change you? How did you stay the same? Then, compare/contrast your experience against Ove’s. Why do you think your stories align or separate where, how, or when they did?
  3. How many protected groups of people can you identify in this novel? Notice how they are portrayed, both positively and negatively. Think about why that might be the case.
  4. Find somewhere you can observe the world around you for at least five minutes. More is great, but not necessary. Your space can be an indoor room, a shared outdoor space, really any place where you can notice and record details of quite literally any variety. Set a timer for your predetermined allotment, get comfortable, and get noticing. Record what you see and try not to filter your thoughts or reactions. When the timer goes off, read what you wrote, sketched, or otherwise notated. What did you observe about your observations?
  5. Can you identify a time when you misjudged a person, place, idea, or situation? If so, what influenced you to reach your initial conclusion? What might have helped you reach another? Forget for a minute the idea of whether that alternative would have been “right” or “wrong.”
  6. If someone were to write a vignette about you in the least flattering manner possible, what would they have to say? Try to shy away from knee-jerk, interview-y responses to this question. Sometimes, even the “incorrect” perceptions people have about us still point to areas in which we are meant to grow.
  7. BONUS Question for Companion Read, In Five Years: Time plays an important role in both books we read this month. Contemplate singularly or discuss with others the effects time has on the main characters. If you’re struggling with where to start, consider how time affects relationships with others they encounter. Feel free to take your answer another direction as well!

May 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s

Friends,

Hard to believe that we’ve rounded the corner into our third month with this little venture. Apologies for the late post!

This month, we’ll be tackling A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (2012). Figured we could use a little levity after a couple of heavy months (and reads).

Additionally, it should be noted that this month is significant in two other ways:

(1) We’re — finally, some of you are saying — reading about a man; and

(2) We’ve — finally, I am saying — got a companion read recommendation! Someone in my orbit let me know that In Five Years, which you might have seen featured on my IG stories earlier this month, is indeed a great book to pick up in May!

Those who are willing/able to read one or both of these spectacular books should feel empowered to do so, and while we’re starting a little later than usual (yikes, two weeks!), I challenge all your beautiful minds to join us. I’ll be better about minding the (totally arbitrary) post deadline(s) in the future!

P.S. Has the sun finally come out where you live, too?? I hope so.

I’ll be reading outside if you need me.

"Gone With The Wind?" Not So Fast.

First, we digress:

I have a confession to make. I, proud and also sometimes horrified daughter of the American South, read Gone with the Wind (GWTW) for the first time last year. My rite of passage — some might even say birthright — was finally complete. What followed next were grandiose plans to draft a Reading Words post about my multi-faceted experience, borne largely of increasing frustration with how the American South gets disproportionately crucified for the atrocities people everywhere still commit, centuries after Union white folk declared victory over Southern sin. If you’re trying to imagine what that post might’ve looked like, think less “Southern apologist” and more “look in the mirror, America” (see here also).

The issue is that I never quite got there. My anger at non-Southern elites was so strong that it blinded me. If we were such a backwards people, worthy of denigration after denigration after denigration, then why did folks who spun these tales also continue to buy our land and appropriate our culture, among other perplexing behaviors? The answer is that the behaviors aren’t really perplexing at all — they’re predatory, and the people who perpetrate them are monsters hiding in plain sight.

See how quickly this type of response digresses? Needless to say, I never published my impassioned early attempts. Why? Because I’d hit a critical impasse: myself. Like it or not, I wasn’t ready to produce the response I needed to share. Owning that was my first step towards maybe one day sharing it. That was easy. The hard part was not knowing when — if ever — I’d be strong enough or clear enough to take this work back on.

What a healer time can be! Today, a year (and really thirty-some) later, I’m finally ready. Though I’m still quieting my shaky knees (this is vulnerable work, y’all!), today I’m properly ready to commence the work I intended to begin last year. Starting today, I’m stepping fully into my calling, fully into my heritage, and beginning with a reckoning by way of Margaret Mitchell and her polarizing oeuvre, Gone with the Wind. Come with?

In the presence of greatness:

It’s always a little uncomfortable to read something where the author is held up as “a great.” You’re, by the magic of reading, connected to someone else, from another place or time, and that person just happens to be whoever they are, and you’re … well, you’re you. Does anyone else ever feel this way? No? That’s okay. The good and the bad of this particular situation is that, in ways that might surprise you, Mitchell’s greatness is qualified by another uncomfortable truth. That qualification makes her more relatable for some, sure, but we’ve got to stop and consider what else we’re doing when we put conditions on greatness in the first place.

Work with me here…

Not only is Margaret Mitchell the author of one of America’s defining pieces of literature, but she’s also a woman, and a woman who won the Pulitzer in the 1930s. As momentous as this might initially seem, paradoxically, by percent, more of these awards were given to women in that era than in today’s (at least for Novels/Fiction). Don’t believe me? Go ahead, look it up. In fact, by the time you read this, it will have been more than half a decade since a woman held that distinction. And that’s not okay. We cannot run from this fact.

Here’s where the nasty qualification comes in to play. When in the course of celebrating Mitchell’s achievements, we start to sound like this —

Yes, isn’t it wonderful? A woman wrote something worth the Pulitzer in the THIRTIES! That must make her EXCEPTIONALLY good!!”

— we end up creating more problems than we do good. And it doesn’t just begin and end with giving Mitchell her dues. The trouble with this line of thinking, taken to its furthest end, is that it presupposes either that (1) women have become less capable of writing things worthy of such high praise, or (2) the publishing industry has become less capable of finding women with award-winning voices. Neither alternative is palatable, or frankly, true.

That said, not unlike popular but misinformed opinions about the South, these ideas carry weight, and that weight makes it harder for women to break through, at least in the ways our sisters did before us. That this month we read a Pulitzer Prize winner is indeed something notable. That we don’t read more of them is also. This is precisely why being in the presence of greatness — and all the qualifications that come with it — is uncomfortable. Somewhere deep down, we know there’s got to be more to the story.

Things get complicated:

Then we get to the real controversy. We need to acknowledge immediately that Mitchell’s perspective is controversial. By modern standards, eulogizing a way of life that we now find repugnant feels … off-putting at best. But that’s also why, all these years later, she remains an essential read.

For some people, that discomfort means we should #cancel Margaret Mitchell, move on, and replace her voice with others who “get it right.” Listen up, folks. I need you to hear me when I say that that line of thinking is dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. Make no mistake, we need to make room for more voices at the table, but removal of voices like Mitchell’s from the national discourse means we create opportunities to forget what it is we find unacceptable, and why it is we find it so in the first place. That task is hard enough in the modern world. We don’t need to make it harder by removing data from our set.

In today’s world, we cannot simply remove things we deem morally base, pretending like they never existed, in service of so-called cultural purity. Or at least, we cannot do this without also creating a dangerously muddy situation for present and future generations. Here’s why: it calls our own motives into question. Who owns the “cultural eraser” matters just as much as who owns the original “pencil,” my friends. And rarely if ever do people in power have the purity of intentions that we’d hope.

Just so we’re all clear, it is very possible to have “pure” motives and also do things that aren’t quite so clearly good. Anyone who tries to assuage you, saying things like, “questionable motives don’t apply to me or my party or my country (etc.),” is quite simply unaware, or aware and untrustworthy. Period. Both situations can be rectified by you becoming and remaining a strong critical thinker. I urge you, please do this now if you haven’t already. Let’s chat if you’re not sure where to start.

I say all this with love. Love and accountability are not mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, in today’s world, we’ve prized finger-pointing more than selfless and brave ownership of fault, and I’m afraid that’s because we’ve lost sight of what matters in the first place. (Hint: it’s not power.) If this country is to move forward in any constructive, united way, we must un-learn the bad habits we’ve picked up over the last… oh, forever… or else risk becoming a lot closer to the world Margaret Mitchell wrote about and a lot further from the one we’re supposedly building towards. Everyone, do yourselves a favor and spend a minute thinking about that idea. Things just got a lot more complicated, didn’t they?

Suddenly, it’s hard to know how to respond:

As a Southern woman, it’s easy to get caught in the crossfire of potential, competing responses to this text. In one version, I lift Mitchell up as the literary great she is and always will be, despite her greatest detractors’ efforts, and get labeled an apologist. In another, I take her to task, get accused of forgetting that the mores that governed her words and actions, and the words and actions of the characters she created (further back in history, still) were necessarily different from our own, and learn that I’ve been equally problematic.

In either scenario, or any middle-ground offshoot I try to strike, something critical gets lost. We must, must, must understand, Dear Readers, that understanding an issue fully means trying to understand it from multiple perspectives. This does not mean we must agree with these perspectives, but our disagreement does not magically excuse us from trying to understand — far from it, actually.

Allowing ourselves to have a singular read on something, whether by our own choice or by letting someone else prescribe that singular read for us, is dangerous. The minute we allow that is the minute we compromise our freedom. It’s possible to give that freedom away all at once, but it’s also possible to give it away incrementally, like sand particles getting swept away from the beachfront, so slowly that hardly anyone notices, until it’s too late. No matter the rate we give this freedom away, we are in grave danger. Protect that freedom, folks. Allow for multiple reads — of books and of life.

I don’t know about you, but with that critical awareness, I’ve started to question everything about my initial reaction to GWTW, and nearly as much about my life alongside it. Did anyone else have this reaction — maybe not right away, but after enough time had passed in these overlapping ruins, those we’ve read about and those we’ve lived through? I hope so, I really do. I hope we had the strength to allow for some level of uncertainty, to sit in the unique discomfort that comes from realizing we all live in glass houses, that none of us are sinless, and that every single one of us can still do something to make this vast, ruinous world just a little bit stronger for tomorrow, today.

Love, Scarlett in Ruins:

Somewhere in the middle of reading GWTW for the second time, this time with you, it hit me: that internal struggle I thought was the reason I couldn’t respond? It might in fact be the response — or maybe the first attempt at one. All I had to do was recognize that the fear I faced was a speed bump, not a stop sign.

Perhaps I knew this already. Perhaps I’m not giving myself enough credit. You see, in one of the earliest drafts of last year’s intended response, I included a notable piece of marginalia. It read: “OK, Scarlett, it’s time.” While I wish I’d listened a little earlier, I also know that it’s what we do with the messages we receive that ultimately defines our lives, not how long it takes for us to receive them. That’s the bridge between last year and today, the book and this life, what mattered to me and what really matters.

The world is considerably harsher today than it was during my first read of GWTW. In this time of immense uncertainty, I’d like to encourage us to remember the lesson of the speed bump — slow down, pay attention, and safely crest into what’s next. We have a unique opportunity before us, Dear Readers, and that is to lean in to the bump, to ask ourselves some gravely important questions in whatever slower moments we can find. There are a million ways to ask, but here’s one humble starter among them: As the world rages around us, what are we willing to stand for? And, if we do not stand, what do we forfeit by extension? (Yes, forfeit — we only lose things when we’ve stood and then fallen. We forfeit when fear of falling causes us to never even try.)

When I wrote to myself one year ago, I never would’ve dreamed that in my first moment of bravery, scribbling marginalia alongside a really crappy draft, that today we’d be here, in this absurd and historic space. Never would I have dreamed we’d be talking about anything more than regionalist b.s. Never would I have dreamed that we might instead be talking about the fate of our country — or indeed, the world. Yet here we are, for the foreseeable future, on the precipice of ruin or rebirth.

The good news is that none of us live through this alone. We have each other, which is to say that we have love. In this we are made wiser, heartier, capable of facing odds the likes of which we have never seen. The world could rage around us, but through love we are made worthy warriors — warriors who take nothing for granted, warriors who wait on no tomorrows, warriors who fight for others’ Taras as much as their own, warriors who know that no matter what else gets lost, the things that matter are never truly gone. Let the winds rage.

April 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s

Friends,

Times like those we are currently living through make us stop and consider what really matters. I’d like to think it’s the idea of love. We need love now more than ever.

For many, this is a time of terrible loss. Loved ones, livelihoods, social groups, entire ways of life just … gone. At least gone for now, at least gone from the way they were.

It is important to acknowledge and reflect upon these realities and the feelings they inspire. Doing so helps them have less power over us, in that we are able to use them as fuel to power us forward, rather than holding us back or turning us ever-dangerously inward.

I’d like to do my small part to pull us back from the brink. Let’s spend this month reading about a woman — and a nation — on the precipice of some other incredible changes. That way, when we emerge once more into the sun, together we can find the strength and the grace to fight for what we hold dear.

NB: My copy was re-released by Scribner, A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. in May 2011. Find whatever version you can access — especially this month — and we can make it work.

And, as will always be the case, if you have ideas for companion reads, share them! I mean it when I say this should be a collaborative project. It will work better if you are reflected at all stages.

Until the last week of April.

March 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Picks!

Dear friends who’ve chosen to join this journey, hello! I’m so glad you’re here.

The first month of this reading group will focus on the topic(s) of love and marriage — recognizing fully that they are not necessarily the same thing, or even remotely close to it, in either direction.

March is Women’s History Month, so I chose two female authors I was not previously familiar with for us to read. They are:

Lisa Taddeo, Three Women (2019, Avid Reader Press)

and

Molly Millwood, To Have and to Hold: Motherhood, Marriage, and the Modern Dilemma (2019, Harper Wave)

Both are works of nonfiction. I’ve already started Taddeo and let me just go ahead and say this — it’s not for the meek. However, it gives me much to be thankful for in my personal life and lots of food for thought more globally speaking. Besides, a challenging read is a good one as far as I’m concerned.

I don’t want to belabor these announcement posts any more than you want them belabored, so that’s all for today. Feel free to find the title (or both!) you’d like to read this month at your favorite bookseller, library, or audiobook purveyor. Let’s meet back here in the last week of March for our reflections — and to see what next month’s topic might be.

I look forward to seeing what we learn together.