Every summer, bookshops lay out stacks of blockbusters designed to be devoured in an afternoon and forgotten in a week. But at UnHerd we prefer books that leave a lasting impression. In this series of Summer Reads, our contributors recommend books that will engage and enrich you, not just distract you.
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Over the past few years, the cultural scene has been absorbed by big questions about race; sex, gender and sexuality; migration and refuge; identity; the people versus the elites. Literary fiction sales have gone down, but readers are increasingly engaging with non-fiction. In a world where so many charged issues are front and centre, it’s hard to look away.
Gender inequality preoccupies me most. And books on the pornification of culture, rape culture, male violence, sexual exploitation, harassment and similar subjects have been piling up since well before the #MeToo movement. But I’m not sure many of them are written to change people’s minds. Indeed, they’re often bought by people who already agree with the books’ premise, and hope to shore up their own opinion.
But not my summer reads. These are persuasive: they call upon the reader’s empathy and ability to step into another’s shoes. Each of the books walks you through women’s experiences.
Inequality, prejudice and marginalisation both cause and are produced by these experiences – and the allusive approach of these books is all the more devastating because it shows the subtle totality of patriarchy. Misogyny isn’t just about sensationally shocking events but about the invisible and choking atmospheric surroundings: expectations, assumptions, stereotypes and judgements.
The books I’ve chosen may ultimately provoke political anger – but first of all they will connect with readers’ observations, memories and experiences.
Invisible Women, by Caroline Criado-Perez, reveals in precise detail how women have been ‘designed out’ of the world we live in: excluded from medical trials, tests of industrial goods, safety checks, urban planning and city design, infrastructure and countless other aspects of daily life.
As a result, we live in a world that is literally designed for men. Full of devastating examples, Criado-Perez’s reveals the sometimes fatal consequences of such an approach.
On more searingly personal territory, the brave and harrowing book, The Apology by Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, is a radical reckoning with her abusive father. In reality, Ensler’s father was a terrifying figure and a perpetrator of sexual violation, family violence and decades of malice.
Ensler and her family never received justice or emotional resolution – so here, she has written her own conclusion. She tries to get under the skin and inside the thoughts of her father, to achieve the closure she longed for as a child. This is an uncomfortable, counterintuitive read – but a necessary confrontation.
No Visible Bruises by Rachel Louise Snyder, another American writer, looks behind the headlines about women killed by a partner or former partner, and explores the patterns of control, abuse, domination and gaslighting that perpetrators use to target and set up victims.
Her world is a gritty one, in which she speaks to everyone from survivors to profilers to detectives, to find out what will enable early detection and prevention of these crimes.
Ultimately, her stance is hopeful: not all men are perpetrators, male violence is not inevitable, and there are tactics and approaches that work to change things for the better.
Even when women are not in a fatally abusive situation, they – we – experience the corrosive effects of subtle mistreatment throughout our lives. Lisa Taddeo’s book about women’s emotional and personal lives, Three Women, is a quietly disturbing probe into gender dynamics which are at once utterly warped and totally normalised. Through the interviews, we encounter intelligent women whose natural desires are thwarted or exploited by the men in their lives, in painfully recognisable ways.
Don’t Touch My Hair by the broadcaster, academic and journalist Emma Dabiri, combines the depth of cultural history with a lively examination of modern day attitudes to black women’s self-presentation, expression and presence. It also reflects on the subtleties of prejudice, from Western beauty standards to the representation of black women in the media.
Finally, Becoming by Michelle Obama. It’s an account of her journey from ambitious, well-loved daughter to First Lady. It touches upon race, class and gender, covering the vilification (as well as the plaudits) she received in public life. But it’s also a story of family and of the many different kinds of love she has given and received. It works as a tribute to resilience under political fire, but also as a simple walk through a woman’s life.
This is what unites all the books I’ve chosen for my summer reading list: they work through empathy and illustration, with maddening and moving results.