Well-Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women
Well-Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women
Barbara Sicherman
The University of North Carolina Press, 2010
392 pp., $37.50

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Jennifer L. Holberg

Well-Read Lives

The impact of reading on American women of the Gilded Age.

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The book's final section turns to readers outside this privileged world: African American women and Jewish immigrant women. Despite important cultural differences and real questions of access, here too the communal activity of reading was critical: in books, these women found intellectual nourishment and the power to transform their lives. Sicherman does a masterful job of reconstructing this under-represented group of readers and in conveying the struggle and achievement of each of them. She brings to light several now-forgotten works that these women produced, much like their white counterparts. These autobiographies, such as Ida B. Wells' Crusade for Justice and Rose Gollup Cohen's Out of the Shadow, provide a richer way for us to understand the female experience in America and give us further ways to imagine vocational possibilities.

Sicherman concludes by briefly describing the change from late 19th-century female communal reading practices to today's book clubs. While contemporary women readers share with their sisters in the late 19th and early 20th century the sense that books have a significant role in personal development, what we have lost, Sicherman contends, is the sense that books must also shape civic responsibility. Book clubs today, she writes, are not "launching pad[s] for public activities" but instead "places of refuge." Still, Sicherman believes that the need to connect with other women over books is deeply felt: "[t]he resurgence of reading groups … suggests that each generation of women must find anew ways to promote female agency and that this is often best done in spaces inhabited by women—both real and imagined." Sicherman's fine volume will surely help this generation of readers understand the rich heritage that has gone before us, reminding us that the gendered narratives of all our lives continue to be written even now.

Jennifer L. Holberg is associate professor of English at Calvin College and founding co-editor of Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture.

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