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So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading by Sara Nelson


Rating: (Mildly Recommended)


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Sara Nelson takes readers into her life as she plans and executes her annual reading plan in her book, So Many Books, So Little Time. On page 5, we learn that she’s afflicted with “readaholism,” and seems proud of it. When Nelson expounded on searching her shelves for a copy of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, I turned my head and looked above to see my own copy, nestled in its appropriate place. There are hundreds of readaholics are likely to really love So Many Books, but most readers will enjoy the chronicle of a busy New Yorker trying to get everything done.

Here’s an excerpt (pp. 48-53):

February 20

More About Mom

There's a picture that sits on a shelf in my home office that I have always loved, but it has particularly interested me this past week, as I spent hours on my couch there devouring Katharine Graham's Personal History. It's a shot of my parents, Charles and June, taken, my mother thinks, outside some European airport, where they'd just landed for a vacation. She can't remember the exact year, but it's clearly the early 1960s, to judge from her Jackie Kennedy-inspired hairstyle and shades and princess coat. My father is characteristically dapper: his shoes match his belt (it's a black-and-white photo, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if both of those were white or, spare me, a kind of canary yellow). He's looking slightly down as he opens his sunglasses with his incredibly long, patrician fingers, and a cigarette hangs from his lips. It was clearly a good time for them, as it was for a lot of Americans: both the family furniture business and their four children were healthy and growing, a young, cool guy was in the White House, and as my father would surely have said in the imitation hipster-speak he used to borrow from his idol, Frank Sinatra, the world was their oyster.

It's a picture, in other words, of well-fed optimism. There is no hint that in a few years, everything they thought they knew would change. That young, cool guy would be dead, we'd be at war, and every social rule they'd lived by would be de facto repealed. If you'd told my mother then that her daughters would work as hard and make as much money as her sons, or that she might one day have any kind of career herself, she'd have laughed. Though college-educated and reasonably well-to-do, she knew her place: at the country club, at the bridge table, and maybe—just now and then so that she'd always be available to throw dinner parties for my father's business associates—at a continuing-education philosophy course at the local college.

I was thinking about my mother while reading Personal History, because it seems to turn on the exact moment I see crystallized in the photo of Charles and June. The mid-sixties were both an end and a beginning for women born in the early part of the twentieth century. It was the moment just before the world turned over for them and their entire generation.

Katharine Graham was born into extraordinary circumstances class-wise, but there was little that differentiated her from other well-born women of the time. The bright daughter of wealthy businessman Eugene Meyer and his wife, Agnes, she went to the tony Madeira School and to Vassar, but in those days, those choices were often more about social pedigree than education. She was expected to—and she did—marry a bright and interesting guy and learn to run a household, raise children, and be a pillar of society. The only unusual thing, early on, was how close she was to her father and how he chose her, not her male siblings, to carry on at The Washington Post. But had Eugene not liked Phil as much as he clearly did, even that might not have happened. As with most women of her time, everything that happened to Graham happened because she was somebody's daughter and/or somebody's wife.

But then the whole production derailed when Phil, who'd been spiraling into mental illness for years, committed suicide at the family's weekend home in the country. Suddenly, Katharine Graham had two choices: she could sell the company her father had built for her, or she could, as they used to say in those days, roll up her sleeves and go to work. Though she had virtually no real experience of the newspaper business, she chose the latter. The rest was, literally, history.

My mother is no Katharine Graham. The advantages she started with are Lilliputian compared with Graham's, for one thing. For another, her beloved husband, while often ill, lived into his seventies and did not die by his own hand. My mother never inherited a company (my father's business was more or less defunct by the time she was widowed) and never held down an actual job. But I've been thinking of my mother a lot—and talking to her a lot—while reading Personal History, because I had a sense (correct, as it turns out) that she thought of herself as a kind of Katharine Graham lite. Like Graham, she was the adored daughter of a hard-driving father; like Graham, she liked associating with the smart and powerful members of her world; although she was one hundred percent Jewish while Graham was only half Jewish, my mother had, like Graham, an ambivalent relationship with the religious part of her religion. One of the things I discovered in my near-daily phone calls with June this last week was that she had almost total recall for the book she read several years ago. (In recent years, an eye problem has forced this lifelong reader to rent and buy books on tape.) "You know that period when she was in Washington going to a lot of parties and dating Phil?" she asked me the other night. "That reminds me of the six months between college and when I married your father."

Never mind that the section that looms so large in my mother's legend is all of about twenty pages long and was, I bet, glossed over by most readers, including me. That's the great beauty of Personal History: because it is so long, and because Graham played so many parts in her life, there is something here for everyone. As far as my mother is concerned, the book is about Graham's childhood and her marriage and maybe a little about her fascination, apparently shared by all women of the time, with Adlai Stevenson. Meanwhile one of my journalist friends refers to the whole memoir as a "story of Watergate." Others see it as a kind of feminist anthem, proof that a woman can do anything she sets her mind to. No wonder Personal History has sold millions of copies and is cited as a model by every famous woman who sets out to write her memoirs. (I'm thinking of Queen Noor of Jordan and Senator Hillary Clinton, both of whose publishers have compared their memoirs to Graham's.) As Nora Ephron, once the wife of Graham's star reporter Carl Bernstein, said in The New York Times Book Review: "[She] had not two lives, but four, and the story of her journey from daughter to wife to widow to woman parallels to a surprising degree the history of women in this century." But a great life—or even two or four great lives—does not necessarily a great memoir make. First of all, it's not so easy to expose yourself the way Mrs. Graham does, to portray yourself, simultaneously, as both a product of history and a creator of it. It's even harder to write frankly about painful and controversial things and keep everybody admiring you in the process.

As I was finishing Mrs. Graham's very long but almost never draggy account, I got the idea that I would wait to write about it until I'd also read the newly released A Big Life (in Advertising), Mary Wells Lawrence's memoir of being the first woman to own her own agency in the male-dominated advertising business. Lawrence, while half a generation younger than Graham, was the same kind of strong woman, I thought, and it might be interesting to see where their experiences and attitudes overlapped. And yet I only had to skim through Lawrence's book to see that the most significant thing the two had in common was—here we go again—a fascination and affection for Adlai Stevenson. (What was it about that guy?) While A Big Life is engaging, and Lawrence's world and accomplishments are very great, it doesn't begin to approach Graham's book in either readability or universality. It's not that Lawrence didn't live through difficult times; it's not that she didn't fight and beat odds; it's not even that as a journalist I have the uppity idea that the advertising world is inherently less noble than the world of newspapers. (Well, maybe I do, a little.) Mary Wells Lawrence, as a memoirist, simply lacks a couple of qualities that Graham has in spades: she's not nearly as reflective and she doesn't come close to being as honest about her insecurities and failures. Later, as I lined both books up here on my desk, I noticed something else: Graham's memoir is slugged “Memoir/Women's Studies,” while Lawrence's is called "Autobiography/Business." A friend in publishing told me that these distinctions are functionally meaningless, that they're merely suggestions from marketing departments, and many stores ignore them when deciding in which part of the store to shelve and display books. But still, I found the categorization interesting for what it implied. A Big Life is one American woman's story. Personal History is the story of American women, my mom included.

I found Nelson’s hyperlinking her reading to the many places her mind wandered to be somewhat interesting, but not compelling. Nonetheless, So Many Books is well-written and if you’ve read this far in the review, you should probably read the book.

Steve Hopkins, December 22, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the January 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Many Books.htm


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