Tracing Year 1 of Our Shared Shelf

Just over one year ago, having found inspiration from her work with UN Women, Emma Watson announced the launch of Our Shared Shelf, a feminist book club based on the social website Goodreads. Since then, over 160,000 members have joined the virtual club, and nine different books (with a tenth book currently in progress) have been read since its start.

Starting from the first selection, My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem, this article will trace the book club’s progress over its first year by providing more information about the books that have been selected so far, including additional information such as Emma’s reasoning for selecting each book and interviews that she has held with the authors of her selections, where applicable.

Book 1: "My Life on the Road" by Gloria Steinem

Description from Goodreads:

Gloria Steinem—writer, activist, organizer, and one of the most inspiring leaders in the world—now tells a story she has never told before, a candid account of how her early years led her to live an on-the-road kind of life, traveling, listening to people, learning, and creating change. She reveals the story of her own growth in tandem with the growth of an ongoing movement for equality. This is the story at the heart of My Life on the Road.

Emma also interviewed Steinem about the book and related issues, the full video of which you can view below:

Book 2: "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker

Description from Goodreads:

The Color Purple is a 1982 epistolary novel by American author Alice Walker which won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction. It was later adapted into a film and musical of the same name.

Taking place mostly in rural Georgia, the story focuses on the life of women of color in the southern United States in the 1930s, addressing numerous issues including their exceedingly low position in American social culture. The novel has been the frequent target of censors and appears on the American Library Association list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2000-2009 at number seventeen because of the sometimes explicit content, particularly in terms of violence.

Emma wrote that she had not yet read The Color Purple (nor any of the other books for Our Shared Shelf):

I’ve heard amazing things about this book from a person that I trust… The musical is currently on Broadway (starring Cynthia Erivo, Jennifer Hudson and Danielle Brooks) and a film was made of the book in 1985 by Steven Spielberg. It was Oprah Winfrey’s film debut and introduced Whoopi Goldberg (I love both of these women). I’m excited to read it and maybe do some watching too.[/blockquote]

Book 3: "All About Love: New Visions" by Bell Hooks

Description from Goodreads:

All About Love offers radical new ways to think about love by showing its interconnectedness in our private and public lives. In eleven concise chapters, hooks explains how our everyday notions of what it means to give and receive love often fail us, and how these ideals are established in early childhood. She offers a rethinking of self-love (without narcissism) that will bring peace and compassion to our personal and professional lives, and asserts the place of love to end struggles between individuals, in communities, and among societies. Moving from the cultural to the intimate, hooks notes the ties between love and loss and challenges the prevailing notion that romantic love is the most important love of all.

Visionary and original, hooks shows how love heals the wounds we bear as individuals and as a nation, for it is the cornerstone of compassion and forgiveness and holds the power to overcome shame.

For readers who have found ongoing delight and wisdom in bell hooks’s life and work, and for those who are just now discovering her, All About Love is essential reading and a brilliant book that will change how we think about love, our culture-and one another.

Emma chose this book to honor its author, who had interviewed her for Paper magazine that month:

This month’s book choice is in honor of bell hooks who interviewed me for Paper magazine this month. Maya Angelou said of bell’s work, “Each offering from bell hooks is a major event, she has so much to give us’. I love hearing from bell, I am pretty excited to start “All About Love: New Visions”. It’s been on my list for a while.

Book 4: "How to Be a Woman" by Caitlin Moran

Description from Goodreads:

Though they have the vote and the Pill and haven’t been burned as witches since 1727, life isn’t exactly a stroll down the catwalk for modern women. They are beset by uncertainties and questions: Why are they supposed to get Brazilians? Why do bras hurt? Why the incessant talk about babies? And do men secretly hate them? Caitlin Moran interweaves provocative observations on women’s lives with laugh-out-loud funny scenes from her own, from adolescence to her development as a writer, wife, and mother.

In her introductory post for the book, Emma wrote that she had previously read How to Be a Woman but described it as brilliant:

Dear OSS,

This month I am choosing a book which I confess I have already read. It is so brilliant though. It deserves to be read more than once.

Maybe you read Caitlin’s article in my Esquire guest edit this month (“12 Things About Being A Woman That Women Won’t Tell You”)… Maybe you’ve seen some of the hype about her new book Moranifesto… Either way, she is an English hero of mine who I think you need to know. On a side note, this book also appears to have been translated into lots of languages and should be reasonably easy to get hold of.

You’ve probably guessed it by now, April’s book (for a little light relief) is ‘How to Be a Woman.’ I read it on a plane from London to New York and I laughed out loud and cried so much I think the whole of my cabin, airline staff included, thought I was losing my mind. (For speedy readers out there, I am also going to read Moranifesto).

Love,
Emma xx

The Goodreads group for Our Shared Shelf has a number of videos of “Emma Watson & Caitlin Moran in Conversation”, which can be found here.

Book 5: "The Argonauts" by Maggie Nelson

Description from Goodreads:

An intrepid voyage out to the frontiers of the latest thinking about love, language, and family

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is a genre-bending memoir, a work of “autotheory” offering fresh, fierce, and timely thinking about desire, identity, and the limitations and possibilities of love and language. At its center is a romance: the story of the author’s relationship with the artist Harry Dodge. This story, which includes Nelson’s account of falling in love with Dodge, who is fluidly gendered, as well as her journey to and through a pregnancy, offers a firsthand account of the complexities and joys of (queer) family-making.

Writing in the spirit of public intellectuals such as Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes, Nelson binds her personal experience to a rigorous exploration of what iconic theorists have said about sexuality, gender, and the vexed institutions of marriage and child-rearing. Nelson’s insistence on radical individual freedom and the value of caretaking becomes the rallying cry of this thoughtful, unabashed, uncompromising book.

Emma wrote that, because the club had become “much more international” than she had anticipated, it was becoming more of a challenge for her to choose books for Our Shared Shelf:

Dear OSS,

I’ve been searching high and low for our next book. The club has been much more international than I had anticipated – and much bigger. I’m really proud of my club members – discussion-wise – you are all hitting it out of the park. I’m having to find books that are accessible, cover multiple perspectives and languages, that are unique and not too well known already… So without further ado…

Our next book is going to be The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson. The story is about the author’s relationship with artist Harry Dodge, who is fluidly gendered. It’s about their romance, the birth of their son, the death of Harry’s mother and their changing bodies, as Maggie becomes pregnant and Harry undergoes surgery, but it’s also about inclusion and the powers and shortfalls of language. It might require a bit of work but The Argonauts rewards us with an expansive way of considering identity, caretaking, and freedom—along with a liberation from, what Maggie calls, “the demand that anyone live a life that’s all one thing.” I am excited to read this book with you. Maybe it will change the way we think and speak about others and ourselves?

Hope I did you proud,
Em Wats X

(A Q&A was also held with Nelson, the answers from which Emma later posted.)

Book 6: "The Complete Persepolis" by Marjane Satrapi

Description from Goodreads:

Here, in one volume: Marjane Satrapi’s best-selling, internationally acclaimed memoir-in-comic-strips.

Persepolis is the story of Satrapi’s unforgettable childhood and coming of age within a large and loving family in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution; of the contradictions between private life and public life in a country plagued by political upheaval; of her high school years in Vienna facing the trials of adolescence far from her family; of her homecoming–both sweet and terrible; and, finally, of her self-imposed exile from her beloved homeland. It is the chronicle of a girlhood and adolescence at once outrageous and familiar, a young life entwined with the history of her country yet filled with the universal trials and joys of growing up.

Edgy, searingly observant, and candid, often heartbreaking but threaded throughout with raw humor and hard-earned wisdom–Persepolis is a stunning work from one of the most highly regarded, singularly talented graphic artists at work today.

Emma’s thoughts on the novel included its relevance during “another important period of change” for Iran in the present day:

Dear Our Shared Shelf,

Our next book will be Persepolis, a graphic novel that serves as the memoir of the author, Marjane Satrapi. It’s about a bold and brave young woman and her experiences in 1980s Iran.

Persepolis was first published in French in 2003 and like Art Spiegelman’s Maus (which was about the Holocaust and was the first graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize) is now widely considered a classic of the graphic novel form.

Satrapi grew up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution and its aftermath; Persepolis is the story of her childhood. Through Marji’s youthful (though not-always-innocent) eyes and mind, we see a turbulent moment in history unfold, and we witness the tremendous impact that local and global events and politics can have on even the most intimate moments of personal lives. We experience with Marji her day-to-day dreams and struggles, from family strife to wrestling with religious faith and custom. We’re swept up in her parents’ anxieties and her grandmother’s memories of an utterly different era. And we get a very real sense of what it was like to be a woman in Iran during this intense time of cultural and political transition.

As Iran enters another important period of change, with relations re-opening with much of the world, I think this is a particularly good time to pick up Persepolis. Satrapi’s deceptively simple, almost whimsical drawings belie the seriousness and rich complexity of her story–but it’s also very funny too.

I’m excited to hear what you think.

Love,
Emma x

Two months later, in August, Vogue.com published a conversation between Emma and Satrapi.

Book 7: "Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl" by Carrie Brownstein

Description from Goodreads:

From a leader of feminist punk music at the dawn of the riot-grrrl era, a candid and deeply personal look at life in rock and roll.

Before Carrie Brownstein codeveloped and starred in the wildly popular TV comedy Portlandia, she was already an icon to young women for her role as a musician in the feminist punk band Sleater-Kinney. The band was a key part of the early riot- grrrl and indie rock scenes in the Pacific Northwest, known for their prodigious guitar shredding and their leftist lyrics against war, traditionalism, and gender roles.

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is the deeply personal and revealing narrative of Brownstein’s life in music, from ardent fan to pioneering female guitarist to comedic performer and luminary in the independent rock world. Though Brownstein struggled against the music industry’s sexist double standards, by 2006 she was the only woman to earn a spot on Rolling Stone readers’ list of the “25 Most Underrated Guitarists of All-Time.” This book intimately captures what it feels like to be a young woman in a rock-and-roll band, from her days at the dawn of the underground feminist punk-rock movement that would define music and pop culture in the 1990s through today.

Beginning in July, Emma decided to make the books bi-monthly, so members would have enough time to read them:

Dear Our Shared Shelf,

Some announcements!

First, after careful consideration I’ve decided to make books bi-monthly to give people enough time to borrow/buy, read and discuss each book (I hope this gives everyone some extra breathing space. For eager beavers and keen beans I might add a few extra things to look at when a new book is posted.

Second ! For the first time………….. I want YOU to decide what we read over July/August so I’ve set up a poll. I’ve added some ideas to get you going but I’d love to see your suggestions too if you feel strongly. I can’t wait to see what you all pick!

Love,

Emma x

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl was the winning book, as voted on by members.

Book 8: "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide" by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Description from Goodreads:

From two of our most fiercely moral voices, a passionate call to arms against our era’s most pervasive human rights violation: the oppression of women and girls in the developing world.

With Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn as our guides, we undertake an odyssey through Africa and Asia to meet the extraordinary women struggling there, among them a Cambodian teenager sold into sex slavery and an Ethiopian woman who suffered devastating injuries in childbirth. Drawing on the breadth of their combined reporting experience, Kristof and WuDunn depict our world with anger, sadness, clarity, and, ultimately, hope.

They show how a little help can transform the lives of women and girls abroad. That Cambodian girl eventually escaped from her brothel and, with assistance from an aid group, built a thriving retail business that supports her family. The Ethiopian woman had her injuries repaired and in time became a surgeon. A Zimbabwean mother of five, counseled to return to school, earned her doctorate and became an expert on AIDS.

Through these stories, Kristof and WuDunn help us see that the key to economic progress lies in unleashing women’s potential. They make clear how so many people have helped to do just that, and how we can each do our part. Throughout much of the world, the greatest unexploited economic resource is the female half of the population. Countries such as China have prospered precisely because they emancipated women and brought them into the formal economy. Unleashing that process globally is not only the right thing to do; it’s also the best strategy for fighting poverty.

Deeply felt, pragmatic, and inspirational, Half the Sky is essential reading for every global citizen.

With this title, Emma wrote that she had “chosen a book that tackles inequality and women’s rights head-on”:

Dear Our Shared Shelf,

For September & October, I’ve chosen a book that tackles inequality and women’s rights head-on: Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.

Half the Sky depicts, in eye-opening detail, the various cultures and customs that suppress women and gives a voice to those individuals who need to be heard the most. Traversing through Africa and Asia, Kristof and WuDunn introduce us to some incredibly strong women and describe their stories of suffering and survival. Most importantly, the book spotlights how these women were able to stand up and transform their lives and, through their inspiring examples, we learn that the key to enabling change and economic growth is in unleashing women’s potential (the title of the book, after all, comes from the ancient Chinese proverb, “Women hold up half the sky”). Kristof and WuDunn dare us, as readers, to join the cause and Half the Sky shows us how, by doing even a very small amount, we each have the power to change other women’s lives.

Since its publication in 2009 it has started a global movement (www.halftheskymovement.org).

Hope you like,

love,

Emma

Book 9: "Mom & Me & Mom" by Maya Angelou

Description from Goodreads:

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

The story of Maya Angelou’s extraordinary life has been chronicled in her multiple bestselling autobiographies. But now, at last, the legendary author shares the deepest personal story of her life: her relationship with her mother.

For the first time, Angelou reveals the triumphs and struggles of being the daughter of Vivian Baxter, an indomitable spirit whose petite size belied her larger-than-life presence—a presence absent during much of Angelou’s early life. When her marriage began to crumble, Vivian famously sent three-year-old Maya and her older brother away from their California home to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. The subsequent feelings of abandonment stayed with Angelou for years, but their reunion, a decade later, began a story that has never before been told. In Mom & Me & Mom, Angelou dramatizes her years reconciling with the mother she preferred to simply call “Lady,” revealing the profound moments that shifted the balance of love and respect between them.

Delving into one of her life’s most rich, rewarding, and fraught relationships, Mom & Me & Mom explores the healing and love that evolved between the two women over the course of their lives, the love that fostered Maya Angelou’s rise from immeasurable depths to reach impossible heights.

In her introductory post for the book, Emma wrote in greater depth about its significance in the life of the late Angelou:

Dear Our Shared Shelf,

November and December’s book will be Mom & Me & Mom, Maya Angelou’s final work, published a year before her death, in 2013, when she was 85 years old. It was the first book to focus on her mother, Vivian Baxter, who abandoned Angelou when she was a child and it portrays their complicated relationship. The story is about the special connection between mother and child; both women found a way to move on and form a profound and enduring bond of love and support.

Many of you may be familiar with Angelou’s 1969 classic, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but that was just the first of seven works of autobiography. And, despite the length of time between their publications, some have referred to Mom & Me & Mom as a spiritual sequel to this first book. Angelou revisits episodes and people in her life mentioned in her previous works in a different context and all focused around her relationship with her mother.

Vivian Baxter cuts a fiercely unapologetic figure, imperfect but admirable, and we discover not just how she had a hand in Angelou’s evolution as a black woman but also in her feminist perspective, her independence and self-awareness, all of which contributed to her unique way of looking at the world and the way she expressed herself on the page. As a result, this is perhaps the greatest window into what shaped Angelou as a writer and poet and a fitting end to a lifetime of amazing works.

This book is one I have read before and is one of my favourites – I can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

Emma x

Book 10: "The Vagina Monologues" by Eve Ensler

Description from Goodreads:

I decided to talk to women about their vaginas, to do vagina interviews, which became vagina monologues…At first women were reluctant to talk. They were a little shy. But once they got going, you couldn’t stop them. Women secretly love to talk about their vaginas. They get very excited, mainly because no one’s ever asked them before.

Emma explained the decision behind choosing The Vagina Monologues for the months of January and February as being due to its ties to a larger movement, V-Day, which was started by Ensler:

Dear Our Shared Shelf,

This book isn’t strictly just a book – it’s a play that became a political movement that became a world-wide phenomenon. Just say the title The Vagina Monologues and, even now, twenty years after Eve Ensler first performed her ground-breaking show, the words feel radical. I’m very excited about spending the months of January and February reading and discussing a book/play that has literally changed lives.

The first person’s life it changed was the feminist playwright Eve Ensler’s. She says she didn’t so much ‘write’ her play as act as a conduit for other women’s stories. She had become fascinated by how the word ‘vagina’ was never spoken, and how the vagina itself was kept in the dark as if it was something shameful to discuss. So she started interviewing women about their vaginas – getting them to open up to her. Once women started talking, the stories came thick and fast, and Eve put them together into a series of monologues to be performed on stage.

When the play was first performed in 1996, it was a small, off Broadway production. But soon it began to make huge and controversial waves. It was the time of the Bosnian war and terrible stories were emerging of the systematic rape of Bosnian women. One of the monologues was inspired by these stories, and out of those first performances of The Vagina Monologues grew the V-Day movement to stop violence against women. The first V-Day was on Valentine’s Day 1998 when a group of well-known actresses got together to perform Eve’s monologues. Since then the V-Day movement has become international, with The Vagina Monologues being performed in theatres and on college campuses worldwide. Even today there are people trying to ban those performances.

I’m so interested to see which monologues we all like best, and which ones still shock us. Has the world moved on in twenty years, or are there still aspects of women’s sexuality we can’t talk about, through our own fears or because others try to stop us? Do we think art can change the world?

Emma x

With a discussion topic of members’ questions for Ensler currently running and 1,563 titles on the “to-read” list, Our Shared Shelf shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.

Have you read any of the books listed above? Are you a member of Our Shared Shelf? What about the book club has made the greatest impact on your life? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!