Rebecca Solnit

80 Books Rebecca Solnit Shouldn’t Talk About

Recently, Rebecca Solnit published a short essay in response to Esquire’s list of “The 80 Best Books Every Man Should Read”. The list itself isn’t great; it doesn’t list the best collection of authors and the tagline with each book degrades the text more than exalts them. I understand the need to criticize the list and what it represents for men and women, but her response is no better;

“The list made me think there should be another, with some of the same books, called 80 Books No Woman Should Read, though of course I believe everyone should read anything they want. I just think some books are instructions on why women are dirt or hardly exist at all except as accessories or are inherently evil and empty. Or they’re instructions in the version of masculinity that means being unkind and unaware, that set of values that expands out into violence at home, in war, and by economic means. Let me prove that I’m not a misandrist by starting with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, because any book Paul Ryan loves that much bears some responsibility for the misery he’s dying to create.”

She says that she believes that everyone should read anything they want, except women who shouldn’t read these texts and authors because she believes they’re poor instructions. Notice that she doesn’t make a list of books that No One should read, or books that Everyone Should Read. She maintains the differences of the genders and places warning signs on books that she doesn’t think benefit women. But how can you decide that these are merely instructions on why women are dirt without reading it in the first place. And I don’t disagree that texts are instructions, but they are instructions that the reader puts together with the text, so she doesn’t seem to be giving women much credit if she doesn’t think that a woman may read one of these texts with an open mind to try to understand why it is so appealing to others.

And obviously she doesn’t hate men because here’s a woman right off the bat that shouldn’t be read either! And not only should it not be read, but it, the text, bears responsibility for one man’s intentions. Because the responsibility doesn’t lie with the reader in reading a text; faults and guilt lie with the words.

I have my own personal feelings towards Atlas Shrugged and the benefits of reading it in order to understand an extremist mentality to establish a spectrum, and I understand that some people genuinely just don’t like it and wouldn’t want to read it and disagree immensely with her philosophy; that’s fine. What irritates me is how Solnit raises her up in order to say “I’m not against men. Here’s a woman with whom I also disagree with so don’t bother reading her either!” And while she points out that on Esquire’s list of eighty there was only one female author (Flannery O’Connor), in her own imaginary list that she begins to concoct, Ayn Rand is seemingly the only woman on her list.

“All those novels by men that seem to believe that size is everything, the 900-page monsters that, had a woman written them, would be called overweight and told to go on a diet. All those prurient books about violent crimes against women, especially the Black Dahlia murder case, which is a horrible reminder of how much violence against women is eroticized by some men, for other men, and how it makes women internalize the hatred.”

She speaks of these tomes about killing women, and I assume that these are books that aren’t well written and that the violence against women is unnecessary and gratuitous, but then does she offer alternatives? Does she offer any case for the good giants that include violence? What about Bolaño’s 2666, with its monotonous telling of murder after murder and murder of countless women? She criticizes and lists books that shouldn’t be read and ends the piece with a list of her own favorites, but at no point does she offer anything positive or useful. And the faults she weighs against male writers come up in her own list of heroes. Hemingway she labels as a “homophobic anti-semitic misogynist”, but Virginia Woolf (an author she later lists as one of her heroes) was also incredibly anti-semitic. And even if Hemingway really and truly was all those things, we’re not talking about going out to drinks with Hemingway—we’re talking about the merits of reading his works. And even if his works do portray—to the core and out—that homophobic anti-semitic misogynistic mindset, wouldn’t it be useful to read something like that in order to understand a mentality that is not (and may never be) yours? Good instructions should include books that make us uncomfortable, that expose us to characters we deplore and could not associate with if we tried. Because that’s what happens in life.

She doesn’t want men to explain things to her, and she’s bent on being the explainer herself. That’s clear in the negativity of her language. Her solution and response is an attack on the books themselves—blaming them and not their readers. And in doing so, she gives very little credit to women as readers, who couldn’t possibly read a book that didn’t accurately depict them and get something useful out of it. Not to mention the lack of credit she gives male readers

“These books are, if they are instructions at all, instructions in extending our identities out into the world, human and nonhuman, in imagination as a great act of empathy that lifts you out of yourself, not locks you down into your gender.”

That last line—if we want books that break us out of ourselves and our genders, then wouldn’t it be useful to delve into one that is so confined in the other? Maybe it’s good to read a text centered around an identity that would reject you, because not everything in this world will accept you anyway. By denying ourselves any access to another psyche—no matter how ‘terrible’ and ‘violent’ it is—through texts, then we’re no better than the men who read The Grapes of Wrath just for the “titty”.

I understand her criticisms and I understand that a list of books that no woman should read is a joke—“of course I believe everyone should read anything they want”—but her jokes aren’t helping anything. It’s a shame that she’ll get harassed by men for identifying with Lolita, but perhaps they’re the ones not reading correctly if they are unable to realize the circumstances that would cause women to identify with Lolita. Don’t blame a text for poor readers. And maybe some books are bad. But give everyone a chance to find something useful within them.

Here’s a link to her original essay