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Review: Why I Am Not Going to Buy A Computer

This is the last of my Penguin Modern reads for a while– I’ve reached the end of my second batch and the third hasn’t arrived yet. But for now, here’s a review Wendell Berry’s nonfiction, titled Why I Am Not Going To Buy A Computer.

img_2172About the book: In a short (5-page) essay fittingly titled “Why I Am Not Going to Buy A Computer,” Berry explains why he chooses to write by hand in an increasingly technological era. 5 response letters are printed following this essay, to which Berry in turn responds briefly. This is followed by the second essay of the book, “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” in which Berry argues again, at greater length, why he stands by his original decision not to buy a computer despite the responses he has received opposing his stance.

“But a computer, I am told, offers a kind of help you can’t get from other humans; a computer will help you to write faster, easier, and more… Do I, then, want to write faster, easier, and more? No. My standards are not speed, ease, and quantity. I have already left behind too much evidence that, writing with a pencil, I have written too fast, too easily, and too much. I would like to be a better writer, and for that I need help from other humans, not a machine.” 

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this particular volume is that the entire book, though made up of separate pieces written at different times, revolves around the same topic. Most of the other Penguin Moderns I’ve read that contain multiple works have felt rather arbitrarily grouped with nothing more in common than a loose similarity in tone or theme. But Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer examines all sides of the same argument, remaining consistent from the first page to the last.

On the other hand, my least favorite aspect is Berry’s skill (or lack thereof) at arguing a point. At times he will say “there is no evidence to support this person’s claim” and then on the next page will say “I know there is no evidence to support my claim but this is how I feel and that is argument enough,” and so on. (That’s a paraphrase.) And underneath his flimsy attacks and counterattacks, I found Berry’s writing (at least on this matter) rather petulant. Berry argues like one of those people on social media sites that leave wordy, antagonistic comments just slightly off point and then continue to engage with every other commenter on the post.

“I disbelieve, and therefore strongly resent, the assertion that I or anybody else could write better or more easily with a computer than with a pencil.”

Though Why I Am Not Going to Buy A Computer is the most recent volume I’ve read from the Penguin Modern collection (written in 1987-89), it already feels a bit outdated. Some of Berry’s points are no longer applicable– for example, it is no longer true that to write in the woods, you must carry a pen and paper along– computers are more portable than they were in the late 80’s. They can do a lot more for the user than they once could. I found myself wondering throughout the book what Berry would say about buying a computer today.

But that is not to say that these essays are now irrelevant. Though his arguments may have stemmed from a different time and place, they do make the reader question his/her own motives in using a computer. In seeing that use as an active chocie rather than a mere habit. Berry asks the reader to consider the environmental effects of producing and consuming technology, as well as the effects on family, the workplace, the home, etc. Is technology doing more for you than you are for it?

“My wish is simply to live my life as fully as I can. In both our work and our leisure, I think, we should be so employed. And in our time this means that we must save ourselves from the products that we are asked to buy in order, ultimately, to replace ourselves.”

I did wish that Berry had fleshed out his first essay more thoroughly to begin with, as the first essay did feel rather bare-bones and I think much of the negativity in response might have been avoided if Berry had taken more time to support and explain his reasons the first time around. But since that didn’t happen, I did enjoy seeing how the original essay evolved over time, how Berry came back to it and reacted to the response letters it received.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This book made me think, though I did not particularly like Berry’s writing style, disagreed with some of his points, and felt that other points no longer applied to the current situation. I’m glad I read this one, but it didn’t overly impress me. I have ordered 6 more Penguin Moderns and I will be reading them in upcoming months, but after reading 4 only mediocre volumes from the collection in June, I’m ready for a little break.

Have you read this book? What did you think?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: Lance

In case you missed it, I’m basically obsessed with the 2018 Penguin Modern series. It’s a set of 50 modern classic samples that run about 60 pages each, to give the reader a taste of modern classic works and authors. I’ve read 11 of them now, have 1 left to read on my shelf, and just ordered 6 more. I can’t stop. Today’s title: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lance.

lanceAbout the book: This volume contains three of Nabokov’s short stories, written over a period of 20 years. These include: “The Aurelian,” “Signs and Symbols,” and “Lance.”

What connects all three stories is a very purple and plotless writing style that manages to be simultaneously beautiful and unsettling.

“Only by a heroic effort can I make myself unscrew a bulb that has died an inexplicable death and screw in another, which will light up in my face with the hideous instancy of a dragon’s egg hatching in one’s bare hand.”

I’ve read Nabokov’s Lolita in the past and loved it– as much as one can love such a story. Though it deals with alarming subject matter, Nabokov filled Lolita with vibrant characters and train-wreck tragedies I couldn’t look away from. I mention this because I expected to find similar aspects to love in his short fiction, and was ultimately disappointed on that count. I don’t remember such elaborately ornate prose in Lolita, but that seems to be the main focus in Lance. Whole paragraphs with no discernible purpose beyond aesthetic make up the bulk of this little book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I wish I had known to expect it when I picked up Lance because it’s not to my personal taste.

“The name of the planet, presuming it has already received one, is immaterial. At its most favored opposition, it may very well be separated from the earth by only as many miles as there are between last Friday and the rise of the Himalayas– a million times the reader’s average age.”

But let’s take a brief look at each of the stories.

“The Aurelian” features a shop-owner whose true passion is lepidoptery: the study of moths and butterflies. He sells what he needs to to make ends meet, but his heart is in his collection and his growing desire to travel and capture specimens of his own. An unexpected chance to do so leads the story to a surprisingly dark ending. This is the purplest of the stories and my least favorite of the bunch, though I appreciated seeing the intersection of Nabokov’s interests in literature and butterflies.

“Signs and Symbols” is the shortest and, in my opinion, simplest of these stories. What looks at first like an ordinary day– as ordinary as it can be, in this family– spirals to extremes through a series of large and small events revolving around a visit to the family’s son in a sanitarium where is mental health is being monitored. I thought this one would turn out to be my favorite, but….

“Lance,” the titular piece, finds the perfect balance between unsettling theme and lush prose. At first this spoof on science fiction bothered me, but for a story that condemns the very genre it follows it turned out incredibly well. This is the story I pulled all of my favorite quotes of the book from, but beyond the lyricism of the wording, “Lance” also offers some interesting insight in sci-fi, space travel, and the human condition. Though it got off to a rocky start for me, it turned out the best of the set.

“Deep in the human mind, the concept of dying is synonymous with that of leaving the earth. To escape its gravity means to transcend the grave, and a man upon finding himself on another planet has really no way of proving to himself that he is not dead– that the naive old myth has not come true.”

The whole book reads almost as prose poetry; each word is chosen so carefully, to such great effect. These stories sound wonderful read aloud, and they look beautiful on the page. Nabokov is clearly a gifted writer, and the darker sides of these stories add an extra layer of flavor and intrigue to what might otherwise be “pretty” work.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. Though I can appreciate Nabokov’s skill, this book just didn’t suit me. There’s definitely an audience for it, but that’s not me. Purple prose isn’t my schtick, and though the little disturbing details saved these stories from being a total wash for me, they weren’t enough to make me truly enjoy reading this volume. I’m glad I read Lolita first, to know that I do like some of Nabokov’s work more than I liked this sample of it; maybe his novel writing is simply a better fit for me; I will definitely reach for another of his longer books before any more of his short stories.

Have you read any Nabokov? Which of his novels should I try next?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The Vigilante

I’m back with another title to review from the Penguin Modern series: John Steinbeck’s The Vigilante. It’s been years since I read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which I loved, and there are a couple of other Steinbeck titles I want to pick up this year- so I thought this would be a nice, easy reintroduction to his work. I can’t get over how manageable it is to pick up these little modern classics that have only 55-65 pages apiece; every one of them changes the way I think about literature, and I love them.

thevigilanteAbout the book: This volume contains three short fiction stories: “The Vigilante,” “The Snake,” and “The Chrysanthemums.” These are all literary fiction snapshots of particular characters in particular circumstances, who learn lessons or display some sort of social commentary that can be more widely applied to the reader’s experiences– whether personal or observational.

The third story, “The Chrysanthemums,” was my favorite, primarily because I found the first two rather disturbing. I’ll divulge a bit about each, but I want to avoid spoiling both the basic plots, and the unspoken commentary behind the plot, as those “morals” are arguably the most important elements of these stories.

“The Vigilante” features a lynching, and while that is disturbing in itself, I felt that the “moral” of this story cheapens that awful death. Our main character can’t even say after the event whether the lynched man was good or bad, or why he was deserving (if anyone ever is) of that particular fate in the first place. This story was originally published in 1938, which was a different time, clearly- but I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed this story in that era, either. It does offer an interesting psychological viewpoint, but I just kept wishing it had been presented in a different way.

“His brain told him this was a terrible and important affair, but his eyes and his feelings didn’t agree. It was just ordinary. […] everything was dead, everything unreal; the dark mob was made up of stiff lay-figures. In the flamelight the faces were as expressionless as wood. Mike felt the stiffness, the unreality in himself, too.”

“The Snake” focuses on a biologist in his laboratory, and a visitor who finds him there. Though her desires aren’t much different than the scientist’s– arguably even more well-intentioned, he finds himself repulsed by them. This could have been my favorite story of the bunch, but I was too uncomfortable over the scientist’s treatment of his animals, and the graphic description of the snake feeding on a rat. Also I have a soft spot for cats, and I can’t stand to see them as “specimens.” If you’re an animal lover, enter this one with caution.

And then we have “The Chrysanthemums.” This is a low-stakes story about: you guessed it, flowers. A farmer’s wife has a prize bunch of chrysanthemums that she’s passionate about, and she encounters two people in the pages of this story: her husband, who supports her passion, and a traveling workman who uses her interest to his own advantage. What’s most interesting about this one, I think, is that neither the farmer’s wife nor the workman have any real respect for each other, but it doesn’t seem to be the callous opinions of each other that bothers either of them. And as a bonus, there’s a nice little bit of feminism here, however brief:

” ‘It must be nice,’ she said. ‘It must be very nice. I wish women could do such things.’

‘It ain’t the right kind of life for a woman.’

Her upper lip raised a little, showing her teeth. ‘How do you know? How can you tell?’ she said.”

What all of these stories has in common is that none of them are about what they seem to be about on the surface; Steinbeck is a master at making a point without spelling out what point he’s trying to make. Each character is believable as a person, though they are only the puppets through which Steinbeck’s morals are displayed. These are stories that require the reader to do the lifting, though they guide the reader in the right direction. Steinbeck is clearly one of the greats.

“When the night is dark– why, the skies are sharp-pointed, and there’s quiet. Why, you rise up and up! Every pointed star gets driven into your body. It’s like that. Hot and sharp, and– lovely.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I was so disturbed by some of the details in the first two stories that I seriously considered two stars, but I do love Steinbeck’s writing. None of these stories came anywhere close to my Of Mice and Men appreciation though, so I’m hoping for a lot better luck with The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, both of which I want to pick up within the year.

Do you like short stories? (I really do, but I don’t pick them up often enough.)

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Food

I’m back with another Penguin Modern review. This one, Gertrude Stein’s Food, will probably be the hardest one to talk about, but I’ll give it a shot. See, I decided to read this one pretty arbitrarily: “Food. I like food,” was the extent of my thought process when I bought this one. Shortly after, I realized it was the lowest rated of all 50 Penguin Moderns– currently 1.9 on Goodreads. By the time I reached the second paragraph, I knew why.

foodAbout the book: This collection is made up of short vignettes focused on different types of food, as well as food-related acts, items, locations, etc. The only pieces that seem a little out of place are “Tails,” and “End of Summer,” though even these sections fit the same form. Most notable about this book is Stein’s style of writing– a sort of rhythmic collection of nonsense words assembled in sentences that are sometimes grammatically correct and sometimes not, though their meaning is always up for interpretation. The vignettes seem designed to give a sense of their subject much in the way an abstract painting might evoke an emotion, rather than providing any clear organization or straightforward meaning.

Perhaps it’s best to give you a sample paragraph and let you see what I mean for yourself:

“The Saturday evening which is Sunday is every week day. What choice is there when there is a difference. A regulation is not active. Thirstiness is not equal division.”

Here’s a foodier one:

“There is read butter. A loaf of it is managed. Wake a question. Eat an instant, answer.”

It’s clear from the beginning that while fragments of these statements are coherent and may contain some nugget of an idea that meaning can be pulled from, the reader is supposed to do the bulk of the interpretation on his or her own. It is tempting to say that the words are entirely random, but I don’t think that is the case. There are plenty of food words strewn in, and many descriptive words that fit the title they fall under: “tender” and “carving” for ROASTBEEF, “red” for CRANBERRIES, “cold” and “white” for MILK, etc.

There are also words like “utter” in MILK that made me think words had been altered in a sort of phonetic way; maybe “udder” had been associated with MILK and and then changed? Further evidence for this theory is the rhythmic, almost poetic nature of the chosen words. I tried reading some of this collection aloud because the sounds are very pleasing to the ear. The rhythm was the main driving force through these pieces for me. The first two vignettes (ROASTBEEF and MUTTON) are the longest, and at that point I was more tolerant of meandering through this style; but as the book continues, the pieces get shorter and punchier, the rhythm increasing, the reader propelled to continue despite wondering whether there is anything at all to take away from this reading.

There is amusement, though. At least for me, there was. I had pretty low expectations for Food once I saw the low Goodreads rating, which I think helped me enjoy it more. There is absolutely no plot, but the rhythm of the words is enjoyable in the way reading made-up words from Dr. Seuss or Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” is enjoyable. The fact that this book seems to be intentionally plotless makes that easier to stand than a book that is supposed to be plotted and is instead bland. I’m not sure I would call Food poetry, but I have no idea what other category it might fit under, either. Actually I’m not even sure whether to call this fiction, nonfiction, or something else entirely.

I did feel like I had a sense of the food or food-related word that titled each section from the text within, but I wonder if I was able to find those correlations between nonsense text and the section titles primarily because I was looking for them. Perhaps the meaning of these vignettes is that meaning can be found in the meaningless? That seems like a very modern art take on a piece of writing originally published in 1914. I’ll leave you to find your own meaning, if you’re interested in trying.

Here’s one more quote that caught my interest. This is the entire page:

“SALAD

It is a winning cake.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I’m actually still on the fence about that rating, maybe leaning toward 3. But if I had not been expecting a 1-star read with this one (and if I had not already bought it I wouldn’t have bothered reading it at all with that expectation), I would not have enjoyed it as much as I did. On the whole, I don’t think there’s anything I’m taking away from this reading experience, but surprisingly, I didn’t hate it.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Notes on Nationalism

I cannot get over my addiction to the 2018 Penguin Modern series. I love these little snapshots of significant modern classic writers. I might try to read all of them eventually, but for now here’s one more: I just finished reading George Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism.

notesonnationalismAbout the book: This is a nonfiction collection of three essays originally published in 1945 that relate to Orwell’s conception of nationalism. The first is the titular piece, “Notes on Nationalism.” It defines nationalism (which is not  synonymous with patriotism, as one might erroneously assume), divides it into three categories and lists types within those categories, before concluding with the purpose of addressing the problem of nationalism. The second piece, “Antisemitism in Britain,” examines one particular type of nationalism. The third essay, “The Sporting Spirit,” ties international sports games to the problem of nationalism. All three works are also colored by the effects and aftereffects of WWII, particularly with the role nationalism played in the conflict and the conflicts Orwell predicted it would continue to create.

“One prod to the nerve of nationalism, and the intellectual decencies can vanish, the past can be altered, and the plainest facts can be denied.”

First, let me say that while I’ve had a lot of difficulty appreciating WWII historical fiction in recent years, I do find nonfiction from/about that time period especially impactful. One of the things I liked most about reading Notes on Nationalism was being able to see the general opinions and atmosphere that prevailed just after the war. There’s been so much focus on the war itself (at least in my own education) that I found this particular take on human psychology around that time, focusing on the cause and effects at the level of the psyche rather than the events of the war, quite a fresh approach.

The fact that it does seem so psychological, though, did make me more wary as well. Through much of the first essay I wondered how Orwell could make the sort of generalizations he does, presenting as fact what seems unprovable about the human mind– at least, outside of one’s own mind. Later in the essay, Orwell does acknowledge that he’s been writing about extremes, and emphasizes that the point of his essay is for people to understand and believe what is possible, rather than to assert that all humans experience the full extent of the nationalist causes Orwell has described. I was more willing to listen to his arguments after that, and I wish the essay had been structured in a different way so that I had been able to read more open-mindedly from the beginning, without spending the majority of the piece thinking, “but how do you know?”

“There is no crime, absolutely none, that cannot be condoned when ‘our’ side commits it. Even if one does not deny that the crime happened, even if one knows that it is exactly the same crime as one has condemned in some other case, even if one admits in an intellectual sense that it is unjustified – still one cannot feel that it is wrong. Loyalty is involved, and so pity ceases to function.”

The second piece, “Antisemitism in Britain,” is more or less an expansion one specific point introduced in the first essay, but it is also is the piece that helped me understand better where one can see nationalism still alive today. Though I believe there are some new categories (or at least categories that went unexplored in Orwell’s original essay) more apparent in recent decades, looking so closely at antisemitism (discrimination against Jews) helped me see other extreme prejudices against “nations” that have taken on a political nature in recent years.

“The point is that something, some psychological vitamin, is lacking in modern civilization, and as a result we are all more or less subject to this lunacy of believing that whole races or nations are mysteriously good or mysteriously evil. I defy any modern intellectual to look closely and honestly into his own mind without coming upon nationalistic loyalties and hatreds of one kind or another. It is the fact that he can feel the emotional tug of such things, and yet see them dispassionately for what they are, that gives him his status as an intellectual.”

“The Sporting Spirit” is my favorite from this collection. It’s so short, but I appreciated the juxtaposition of a popular event with the sort of post-war mob mentality examination that Orwell applies. And of course, international sports games and competitions are still ongoing today, though disagreements between countries are not currently at world war levels– something to be thankful about, in the midst of the prejudices Notes on Nationalism brings to light. I enjoyed the severe slant Orwell layers over something that is traditionally accepted as fun.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’m not a big political reader, of historic or current events; I like to know the basics of what’s going on at the moment, but I’ve got a bad memory for anything I learn beyond that. Even though Notes on Nationalism does go into specifics (and particularly into historical specifics by this point), it does contain the sort of general overlook that makes it applicable to other time periods. Those are the politics I like to read about: the timeless motives that move generations of people to their own specific actions. It’s a (dark) glimpse into humanity. I liked it a lot. I plan to read more of Orwell’s work in the future– so far all I’ve read is 1984.

Do you have any favorite modern classic writers?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Breakthrough

I’m getting back into my growing Penguin Modern collection, so brace yourself for more short modern classics reviews from me this month. I just read Daphne du Maurier’s The Breakthrough, which I chose partially because it’s the next in numerical order from the unread books I own in this collection, but also because a couple of months ago I read my first du Maurier novel, Rebecca. I enjoyed Rebecca so much that I planned to love The Breakthrough as well.

thebreakthroughAbout the book: Stephen is an electronics engineer being sent to beautiful and secluded Saxmere for a three-month job with a questionable scientist. From the moment of his arrival, nothing about his new workplace is as expected, and he’s immediately tempted to tell lead scientist “Mac” that he can’t and won’t do the job. But Mac has three computers with extraordinary capabilities and potential, and Stephen agrees to stay on the project to work with the advanced computers. Mac wants to use them to collect life energy as it leaves the body– but even he may be surprised by the experiment’s results.

“Dispatch the maimed, the old, the weak, destroy the very world itself, for what is the point of life if the promise of fulfillment lies elsewhere?”

As usual (at least as far as I can tell with only Rebecca to judge from so far), du Maurier’s writing is impeccable. This is the first Penguin Modern I’ve read in which one story/text fills the entire book, but I was so engrossed that the pages flew by faster than most of the shorter pieces I’ve read from other authors in this collection. Du Maurier is great with atmosphere and unsettling details, and even though The Breakthrough lacked most of the psychological intrigue that endeared Rebecca to me, the same spooky tone ran through this short piece. The Breakthrough is a science fiction story, but du Maurier is such a master of language that she made the switch in genre work.

But let’s look at the plot. I would not say that I’m any sort of sci-fi expert, but neither am I a stranger to the genre. And this plot… did not impress me much. It’s well-crafted with various weak and odd characters at the center of a life-altering experiment– an intriguing balance. Mac believes that certain “supernatural” phenomena is caused by inadvertently trapping one’s life energy in another vessel after the body dies– not the person’s intelligence or soul, but their spark of life. He has gathered a child who may have access to her dead twin’s life energy, and a terminal cancer patient willing to donate his. But at the crucial moment, no one on the team knows whether to call their results a success; what they have succeeded in accomplishing may be something far beyond their expectations and capabilities for continuing, and is frightening in its implications. But this case is so isolated and the experiment so limited and specific that the stakes are low. Death has already occurred when the real dilemma arises, and the story seems to take its only available ending– the one that prevents further exploration of its theme. Let me clarify: it all fits together very well, and there is nothing wrong with this story. It just didn’t surprise me the way sci-fi usually does.

“My mouth felt dry and I kept swallowing. Something inside me kept saying, ‘Don’t let it happen.’ “

I also want to mention as a side note that I’ve been rewatching some old X-Files episodes lately, and The Breakthrough felt a lot like one of those. It’s a story about something that shouldn’t be possible, something just a little too strange and beyond belief, but real enough to leave its audience wondering.

“We had numbered it X in the files, because it was different from the others.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I had a hard time deciding on a rating for this one because it didn’t particularly sway me one way or the other. I usually consider a 3-star rating the worst possible category because a lower-rated book for me generally has something actually bad about it that’s at least fun to rant about or learn from. But The Breakthrough wasn’t boring and it didn’t feel like a waste of my time in the way 3-star books often do. It just didn’t quite have enough oomph for a 4-star rating. My opinion on this book might change as I read more du Maruier and have a better sense of her work overall.

What’s your favorite sci-fi story?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Problem That Has No Name

I have reached the end of my first wave of Penguin Moderns. I bought 6 right away when the collection was released, and I’ve just finished reading the sixth: Betty Friedan’s The Problem That Has No Name. I’ve already ordered 6 more that should be arriving any day now, but I think I’ll either try to read them more sparingly or start reviewing them in my monthly wrap-ups so my regular posts aren’t inundated with all these short modern classic reviews. Unless you like these? Here’s one more to help the decision process in the meantime.

theproblemthathasnonameAbout the book: Betty Friedan was a publishing feminist in the 1950’s/60’s who captures the discontent of the American housewife in that period. Even before there is a name or a clear way to describe the problem that women were experiencing with losing their identities in marriage, the stirrings could be seen in statistics, hospitalizations, statements of complaint, and more. Friedan pulls sources together to make a case for the harm being done to women across the nation as society tells them over and over in every way that their place is in the household, as a wife and mother and nothing more. In two essays, “The Problem That Has No Name” and “The Passionate Journey,” Friedan outlines the first wave of feminism that culminated in women’s right to vote in 1920, and the second wave around 1960 when women begin to rise together again to win destinies as more than subservient childbearers.

“The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slip-cover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to even ask herself the silent question: ‘Is this all?’ “

“Just what was this problem that has no name? What were the words women used when they tried to express it? Sometimes a woman would say, ‘I feel empty somehow… incomplete.’ Or she would say, ‘I feel as if I don’t exist.’ “

This is a nonfiction book with a lot of statistics, dates, names, etc. It’s an outline of where we’re coming from in regards to gender inequality in the US, and Friedan lets the facts do the work in persuading readers to join the cause.

“The wonder is that the feminists were able to change anything at all– that they were not embittered shrews but increasingly zestful women who knew they were making history.”

Although the information in this volume is a bit outdated– we no longer see a nation full of women stuck under the title “homemaker”– this is a great start for anyone interested in the history of feminism. And it’s shocking how very recent some of that history still is. Friedan writes about a time when women had legal rights, but were still expected to fit a certain mold that society formed for them. They were allowed to work and go to college, but society frowned upon the women who did and so those rights went unused in many cases. Women were pressured from every side to live a certain lifestyle, and they gave up so much of themselves to fit into the box the world wanted to put them in.

“The problem was dismissed by telling the housewife she doesn’t realize how lucky she is– her own boss, no time clock, no junior executive gunning for her job. What if she isn’t happy– does she think men are happy in this world? Does she really, secretly, still want to be a man? Doesn’t she know yet how lucky she is to be a woman?”

Women have made strides. We’ve come a long way toward equal treatment despite gender, but there are still issues to fight for. The issues covered in “The Problem That Has No Name” were new in their time, but they are largely battles that have been fought and won by now. In the pressure to be a perfect wife, a perfect mother, to work in the home and keep up appearances, women of Friedan’s time lost their personalities, their very humanness.

“It was the need for a new identity that led those passionate feminists to forge new trails for women. Some of those trails were unexpectedly rough, some were dead ends, and some may have been false, but the need for women to find new trails was real.”

Friedan writes for the generations of the future– for this generation, and generations to come. Though she discusses social issues of her own time, she writes with an eye toward documenting. She doesn’t want women to fall into another lull like the one in the twentieth century that led to millions of passive housewives with no real agency. She is remembering and reminding that each life is unique, and the fight for equality is not complete until every right is won.

“The women who suffer this problem have a hunger that food cannot fill.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I’m increasingly interested in feminism and this volume provided both new information for me and renewed my standing passion for the issue. For those that aren’t sure how they feel about feminism yet, this might be one of the books with the power to help you decide, as its very informative and briefly covers nearly 200 years of feminism. I don’t know that I will be reading more of Friedan’s work (I feel like I’ve gotten the gist from this volume), but I will be reading more feminists, and I will be reading more Penguin Moderns. I just might not be reviewing them the same way.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant