Friday, October 28, 2011

Conquering the Book Stack

I'm still trying to conquer my book stack at the flat in Greenpoint.

I really fell in love with a book PJ lent me, Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties by Sheila Rowbotham.

I’ve been greatly enjoying Rowbotham’s personal reflections about her intellectual, emotional, and spiritual evolutions over the decade that very closely encompassed her 20s. I also enjoyed the musical and fashion-related recollections (especially since I saw Nowhere Boy last week).

Rowbotham lived through her 20s in Europe—mostly in Britain (she attended the women’s counterpart to Oxford in the early 60s, when universities were still men-only), though she fit in with French beats and Spanish surfers here and there.

I’ve been relating to Rowbotham as a fellow nomad—geographically and intellectually—wandering through her 20s. While our experiences aren’t identical by any stretch, I am moved when a familiar note is struck.

About her introduction to politics as an undergrad history student: “I still did not identify cultural rebellion or radical approaches to history with ‘politics,’ which I thought was merely about power and ambition. However, I was beginning to shift away from an exclusive preoccupation with the personal and to consider broad social factors. This rearrangement of my mentality, combined with an inclination to revolt, disposed me to the left. It was not only to be books and ideas which exerted an influence, but the kindness of several older people towards me.

Discovering that even a counterculture can be sexist: “Women, I noted, operated within the narrow spaces allotted to femininity, as assertive hip chicks, academic women, mother-goddesses, geisha-type sex symbols, independent girly-girls, being matter of fact or in taking comfort in dismissing men. I thought we jumped in and out of these modes of being and that our discomfort about how to ‘be’ put us at a disadvantage in relation to men.”

Growing older/growing up? “I was nearly 25, about to hit that old borderline which, only a few years earlier, had seemed to mean you were definitely grown up. But I wasn’t feeling grown up at all. We had moved all the signposts anyway and nothing signified what it had done then. I had no clear idea how to live in the new space.

Also, I am finally facing up to the biggest shame of my book stack: The Other America: Poverty in the United States by Michael Harrington.

I picked up this first paperback edition at Downtown Books in Milwaukee my senior year... so that would make it sometime in 2007 or 2008! It's come with me to Ripon, Madison, New Jersey and Cape Town. Enough is enough!

Thank you Bud Johnson, wherever you are...

I'd heard this book referenced in undergrad classes; as a matter of fact, Rowbotham reflected on reading it in Promise of a Dream. And when I picked up this copy, I noticed a relevant clipping for the New York Times was tucked away inside of it...


  1. First of all: hanks for commenting and +1-ing on my blog!
    Secondly: I can guarantee you my stack of unread books is bigger than yours. $1 library sales and the Clearance section at Half Price Books allow me to easily collect quality works faster than I can read them.
    Thirdly: Unfortunately, sexism among progressives hasn’t ended since Rowbotham wrote about it. This has been painfully apparent in some incidents in Occupy campsites.
    Occupy Baltimore’s leadership published a pamphlet encouraging sexual assault victims to report to an internal “Security Committee” rather than talking to actual police or healthcare workers:

    A woman with a developmental disability was allegedly assaulted overnight at Occupy Cleveland:

    There have been a couple news stories on it; I can’t find the one wherein one protestor was quoted flat-out accusing the alleged victim of being a plant placed to discredit the occupation. (In all fairness, other self-appointed spokespeople were, if not actively sympathetic, less accusatory.)

  2. Hi friend!

    I really enjoy your blog. I'm still a news junkie in SA, but while the BBC, Al-J and SAfrican news outlets are readily available, I miss a lot of what's going on at home. I do want to keep up with that friends in the States are seeing/thinking/dealing with.

    I haven't been without an unread book stack since high school, I expect. But when I paid more than $100 USD to mail my unread books from Madison to South Africa, I became determined to just get them read and help them find new homes. (Because giving away an unread book is admitting defeat!) (ALSO, my luggage was oversized and I paid extra for it... and books were a big culprit.) Moving around the Midwest, or even the US, was still pretty doable as a book hoarder... but moving back and forth across the Altantic with heavy books is a no go.

    I miss Half Price Books! What a gem.

    UGH @ news of sexism at Occupy sites. I mean, I've never considered progressive or lefty people or movements immune to sexism--anyone who's watched 10 minutes of Bill Maher can attest to that. My own two cents is that to most American minds (even progressive ones), different movements for social change fit into neat silos--and anything regarding gender or consent to sex is FEMINISM. And that's a bad thing--obstructionist, irrelevant, etc. And so if Occupiers want financial regulation, or more attention paid to entry-level employment opportunities, or whatever else, it must have nothing to do with feminism or gender literacy.

    And that's why I found Rowbotham's accounts so fascinating. She was a dedicated Marxist (sometimes Trotskyist) for most of the 60s, but she'd go to meetings and the only task she'd be assigned was to make the tea for other members! She eventually withdrew from all the worker movements, though it pained her, to focus primarily on Women's Lib, because socialist groups were telling her gender justice would come AFTER the revolution. And maybe that's why progressive movements in the US are splintered today... with devastating consequences :/

  3. Thanks! I like your blog, too; it's fascinating to see engagement with and adaptation to another culture one day at a time. (I hope that doesn't sound glib.)
    One fruitful way I think feminist topics could be more broadly discussed is to broach them in LGBT circles. I saw a fair amount of success with such a dynamic in the progressive bubble at MU, and am grateful I was allowed to witness it. Both feminist and LGBT realms of discourse have as their target patriarchal-heteronormative mores and assumptions. Though civil rights are a tangible, reachable goal for the enterprise of LGBT enfranchisement, the end of cultural enforcement of strict gender expectation holds promise for significant enhancement of quality of life for everyone. I think about my time in an all-male high school; it wasn’t just the gay or gay-seeming kids for whom the accusation of homosexuality was dreadful, but everyone. The expectations of caricatured masculinity and heterosexuality were means by which *everyone’s* behavior was policed. I imagine similar self-enforcement of expectations are even more strictly upheld in groups of women and girls. Such cultures serve only those most willing to exploit their dynamic.
    Unfortunately, a joint feminist-LGBTple dialogue on gender expectations would only be a baby step in influencing progressive culture. Though a growing majority of lefties are for greater civil rights for LGBPple in some form, their support doesn’t go beyond sincere lip service for marriage or adoption privileges, and doesn’t address wider cultural issues.

  4. So, basically, feminism and LGBT advocacy are compartmentalized from other progressive projects, but a feminist-LGBTple alliance could give each group a bigger compartment.