Learning to See

by Elise Hooper

ISBN 978-0-06-268653-4

“I could tell my commercial success put off some of the men who been working for a long time. They viewed me as a hack. After all, what did I know? I was just taking pictures of rich people. All of their talk about artistic philosophy and technique made me feel inferior and bored me to tears.”

When the Great Depression struck in 1929, an unlikely figure took up the calling of capturing for posterity the breadlines, shantytowns, and migrant farmers displaced by the Dust Bowl. Dorothea Lange was a portrait photographer, sought after by the elite of San Francisco society. Though she was friends with members of the city’s prestigious f/64 photography club, such as Imogen Cunningham and Ansel Adams, she was not a participant, perhaps because her work was considered too commercial. But as her rich clientele dwindled, Lange took up her camera for a new purpose, capturing many of the most famous images of the Great Depression as we remember it today. In Learning to See, Elise Hooper fictionalizes Lange’s journey from New Jersey girl to San Francisco society photographer to one of America’s most famous photographers of the nation’s pivotal moments.

Hooper paints a portrait of Lange as a modern, independent businesswoman and artist, who evolves into something of an artist-activist. In the afterword, Hooper notes that many of Lange’s contemporaries described her as difficult and controlling, but the novel takes Dorothea’s first-person perspective, and tries to imagine her life as she saw it herself. She expected the same degree of control over her work that her male peers enjoyed, but because she often worked for the government in the latter half of her career, she often did not have full control over her projects. She would be told where to go, and what she could and could not photograph. Her images did not belong to her, but to the various government agencies by whom she was hired by to depict the Great Depression, and then the Japanese-American internment. The latter photos were considered so incendiary that her work was impounded. Ansel Adams took her place, capturing images that were more to the government’s liking. Likewise, Lange took many photos of African-American sharecroppers who were hard hit by the depression, but the government chose not to use them, declining to make the depression a “race issue.” You can see some of Lange’s images in the back of the book.

Hooper pays particular attention to Lange’s family dynamics, from her abandonment by her father as a child, to her first marriage to painter Maynard Dixon, their two sons, and their subsequent divorce. As work dried up during the difficult years of the Depression, Lange made the wrenching decision to foster out her children so that she could keep working for the government, which required her to travel. With her husband unable to sell any of his work, she was the sole provider, a fact which strained her marriage, and caused resentment in her children. Although she enjoyed a happier second marriage, she remained responsible for the children, while neither of her husbands were ever faulted for their own part. Hooper captures this tension, deftly demonstrating the constraints that limited a working woman artist at the time; without birth control or childcare, she was at the mercy of childrearing responsibilities, and judged harshly for any she dared to throw off.

In addition to Dorothea’s marriages, Hooper pays special attention to two of her friendships, first with Fronsie Ahlstrom, the girl with whom she traveled to San Francisco in the first place. Hooper acknowledges that Fronsie mostly disappears from Lange’s biographies after this period, and that her role in the novel is largely fictionalized. However, Dorothea’s relationship with fellow photographer Imogen Cunningham was better documented—in fact, Cunningham was the original subject of Hooper’s project before the research trail led her to Lange instead. These two friendships buttress the narrative, providing the support that the men so easily overlook.

Hooper spends the first part of the book fully setting the scene and chronicling Lange’s development. While this part of the story is slower, it gives weight to Lange’s evolution, and contextualizes her decisions. Learning to See begins at the end, when Dorothea receives an invitation from the Museum of Modern Art for a retrospective of her work in 1964. We occasionally revisit this last year of her life throughout the book, illustrating the length and strength of her friendship with Imogen, her carefully repaired relationship with her older son, and the amount of time it took for the value of her work to gain to broader recognition. While the book rushes in portions, and drags in others, the overall portrait is nevertheless fascinating.

You might also like The Other Alcott 

The Moment of Lift

Cover image for The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates by Melinda Gates

ISBN 978-1-250-31357-7

“The correlation is as nearly perfect as any you will find in the world of data. If you search for poverty, you will find women who don’t have power. If you explore prosperity, you will find women who do have power and use it.”

After leaving Microsoft to raise her three children, Melinda Gates and her husband created their foundation for charitable giving, with an emphasis on global health. For many years, Gates worked behind the scenes of the foundation, while her husband continued his work at Microsoft. But it would not be until 2012 that Gates stepped fully up into the public eye to sponsor the London Summit on Family Planning that she clearly emerged as a leader, and began to place greater emphasis on gender equity issues. Here, she makes her case for why lifting up women and girls has a profound and measurable impact on the very issues of global health and hunger that the foundation had been working on all along. On a personal level, she shares how she overcame her inclination towards privacy in order to become a stronger advocate for the issues she cares about. The author’s proceeds from the book will also be donated to charity.

The Moment of Lift chronicles the Gates Foundation’s slow tiptoe into gender equity work, an area that was long seen as a departure from their core mission of innovating in the arena of global health, and then helping partner organizations deliver those innovations to the people who needed them. Melinda Gates has a good eye for combining punchy facts with real-life illustrations of their principles, drawing on her extensive travels for the Gates Foundations to provide them. The book is divided into nine chapters that focus on issues the foundation has worked on, including family planning, child marriage, and access to education for girls.

Gates begins with the controversial issue that drove her into the public eye, as a Catholic who supported family planning and access to contraceptives. She writes about family planning with carefully chosen words, emphasizing how it allows women to choose when to have children, without ever mentioning whether. She largely avoids the issue of birth control for single women, and focuses on timing and spacing pregnancies for maternal and infant health, and is very clear about differentiating family planning from abortion. She speaks candidly about the political and religious implications that have become attendant on working on these areas, so her arguments are finely calibrated to try to avoid those pitfalls. These chapters feel very guarded, as if the author is braced for the inevitable blowback.

The Moment of Lift is a reflective book that examines what it takes to do effective philanthropy. Gates acknowledges that “we at the foundation were latecomers to using gender equity as a strategy. As a result, we have lost opportunities to maximize our impact.” She also examines the potential problems caused by huge influxes of money from outsiders who assume they know best. For example, partner organizations may chase the grant money, and in doing so commit to a less effective intervention strategy, simply because it is the idea being backed by the wealthy donor. She also repeatedly emphasizes the danger of not listening the people on the ground, both the local partners that will do the work, and the people who will receive the benefits, or harms, of the chosen approach. She provides multiple examples of situations where it was assumed that education was all that was needed, when in fact more complicated factors were at play. Sex workers in India in the 1990s already knew that they were at risk of HIV if they didn’t use condoms. They didn’t need education on that fact, or even better access to condoms. They needed clients not to beat them if they tried to initiate condom use, and they needed the police not to beat them if they were caught carrying condoms. To achieve that, they needed such beatings to have consequences, but it took non-profit organizations a long time to hear those women, and understand that the issue was violence, not sexual health education. These women were taking a longer-term risk, a costly gamble to avoid a guaranteed short-term consequence.

The chapters on women’s work—paid and unpaid—contain the most personal detail, both about Gates’ home life, and her time at Microsoft. She expresses a desire not to equate her experiences with those of the other women she writes about, but to demonstrate the breadth and reach of such issues of inequality. I was particularly interested in her reflection on how she contributed to a work environment that was hostile to the working style of women at Microsoft by initially trying to emulate the hard-charging, aggressive styles of the men she saw around her, some of whom later admitted that they too had only been trying to live up certain ideas about the successful businessman. Acting out roles we don’t believe in can help to perpetuate the systems that led to these harmful ideas in the first place.

Some of the stories Gates shares are hard ones, but she encourages the reader to “let your heart break” rather than turn away. As a book, The Moment of Lift is quiet rather than incendiary, but perhaps that will enable some to hear it who would otherwise cover their ears.

You might also like: Leaving Microsoft to Change the World by John Woods

Romanov

Cover image for Romanov by Nadine Brandesby Nadine Brandes

ISBN 9780785217244

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“After Rasputin, the people grew too suspicious of spell masters, convinced they could control minds. So the revolution began—forcing Papa off the throne and hunting down spell masters, one by one.”

When the Romanov family is transported from exile in Tobolsk to a new prison in Ekaterinburg, Anastasia “Nastya” Romanov is entrusted by her father, the deposed tsar, with a family heirloom which she must hide from the Bolsheviks at all costs. The magical Matryoshka doll was made by the great spell master Dochkin, and may hold the key to saving the Romanovs, as well as preventing Dochkin from being forcibly recruited into the Red Army, or murdered. But Commandant Yurovsky will stop at nothing to find the legendary spell master, and only one of his artefacts can uncover his secret hiding place. In Ekaterinburg, the days count down steadily towards July 16, 1918, as the Romanovs try to win over their captors, and live in hope of rescue by the White Army.

Nadine Brandes introduces a magical twist into the ever-popular story of the Romanov princesses and their grisly fate. Grigori Rasputin is an off-page character, blamed for much, the catalyst for many events, but never actually seen. However, he is not the only magician in this story. Thanks to his actions, Russia has turned on all its spell masters, demanding that they serve the state, or die. Spell work has been responsible for keeping Tsarevich Alexei alive despite his hemophilia, but at a terrible price. Nastya herself dreams of becoming a spell master, but with Rasputin gone, there is no one to teach her, and the only spell she knows will ease her brother’s pain, but not heal his injuries. Brandes does an excellent job of imagining and depicting relationships within the family, and especially the interactions between siblings, though she mainly focuses on Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei.

Brandes includes two romantic subplots for the Romanov sisters in captivity; Maria falls for a Bolshevik soldier named Ivan, while Nastya tries to keep at bay growing feelings for his secretive comrade, Zash. The tension in the romance between Ivan and Maria felt a little bit more fraught, so when I got to the “What’s True” section at the end of the book, I was not terribly surprised to discover that Maria’s flirtation with Ivan was based on true events, while Zash is wholly imaginary character, invented for his instrumental role in the second half of the story.

For the most part, the first half of the book, which takes place before the fateful night of July 16, hews closely to the history of what we know about the Romanov’s captivity, with a few magical and romantic twists. However, nearly half the books takes place after that night, and it is here that Brandes gallops off into the realm of pure fantasy, with mixed results. Part of the romance of the Romanov survival myth in imagining what came next, and the reader’s enjoyment of the latter part of the story will likely hinge on how well Brandes’ vision accords with their own ideas.

You might also like The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

What Matters Most

Cover image for What Matters Most by Chanel Reynolds by Chanel Reynolds

ISBN 978-0-06-268943-6

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“It turns out the hardest thing I’d ever had to do wasn’t removing medical support; it was figuring out how to tell Gabi his dad was dead.”

In July 2009, Chanel Reynolds’ husband José was struck by a turning vehicle while riding his bike in Seattle. For a week, he hovered on the cusp of life and death, long enough for Chanel to realize that they absolutely, definitely did not have their shit together. Their wills were written, but unsigned. She didn’t know how much insurance they had, or what it covered. She couldn’t even remember to bring a copy of his insurance card to the hospital. She didn’t know how to reach the paternal side of his family without the passcode to his phone. The list went on and on. They had a mortgage that absolutely required two salaries, and now they had no salaries at all, as managing his medical care, and then his funeral, became her full-time job, along with caring for their five-year-old son, Gabriel. What Matters Most follows Reynolds through the weeks and months after the accident, as she navigates the convoluted bureaucracy of death in America today.

The larger part of What Matters Most consists of Reynolds’ memoir about her husband’s accident, the decision to remove medical support, and the fall-out from his death. She is brutally honest about the mistakes they unwittingly made in the nine years of their marriage leading up to it, as well as her struggles in the days, weeks, and even years that followed. Grief is a strange country, but Reynolds takes us there vividly, through all the wild ups and downs, and unexpected turns of such a loss. This account also follows her into single motherhood, and through picking up the pieces of her life, and having to imagine an entirely new future for herself and their son. Her style is forthright, and occasionally irreverent, but still very affecting; she had me in tears more than once. The memoir portion stands well on its own and is worth reading quite apart from the advice Reynolds also provides.

Interspersed with the memoir sections are chapters drawn from the work Reynolds has done on her website, Get Your Shit Together. Several years after her husband’s passing, she felt compelled to share what she had learned, and try to help others avoid finding themselves in similar circumstances in the wake of a tragedy. Reynolds is not a lawyer or a financial planner, so her lists and advice are broad and general, hitting highlights such as insurance, wills, powers of attorney, and so forth. Her suggested tasks are as small as updating the medical and emergency information in your cell phone, and as big as writing, signing, and notarizing your last will and testament. While intended for an American audience, it would likely provide food for thought, and a kick in the pants to anyone who doesn’t have their affairs in order, regardless of nationality. In modern society, death has become an extremely bureaucratic and paperwork intensive event, placing significant mental demands on people who are already struggling with the emotional consequences of loss. What Matters Most encourages readers to help spare their loved ones this additional burden so that they can focus on grieving and healing.

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The Valedictorian of Being Dead

Cover image for The Valedictorian of Being Dead by Heather B. Armstrongby Heather B. Armstrong

ISBN 978-1-5011-9704-8

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “When you want to be dead, there’s nothing quite like being dead.”

With the tag line “Our lady of perpetual depression” Heather B. Armstrong has documented her mental health struggles over the years on her dooce blog, mixed in with stories about her life and family, leaving Mormonism while living in Utah, and becoming one of the internet’s first professional bloggers (and getting fired from her day job as a result). In more recent years, she has shared her divorce, and raising her two daughters alone, and even semi-retired from blogging due to the changing nature of sponsorship, and the increasing demands of influencer marketing. The Valedictorian of Being Dead recounts her most recent bout of severe depression, and the experimental treatment she underwent to try to reset her brain. Ten times over three weeks, doctors used propofol anesthesia—yes, the Michael Jackson drug—to induce a coma-like state, reducing brain activity to the bare minimum before bringing her back up in an effort to gain the benefits of electroconvulsive therapy without the negative side effects. For Armstrong, the treatment was life changing.

Given that she was one of the internet’s first big bloggers, it probably isn’t surprising that the first blog I ever followed was Heather B. Armstrong’s dooce blog, way back in the day before she was even a mom, let alone a “mommy blogger.” However, I fell off with reading somewhere along the way, probably because the increased focus on parenting wasn’t particularly interesting to a college student. So when I saw her memoir at ALA, I thought it would be cool to catch up. And indeed, I was pulled right back into what I enjoyed about her writing style, which is energetic, descriptive, and often darkly funny. “When she told me about my dazzling performance, I reminded her that when I want to do something well, I become the valedictorian of doing that thing. No one does dead better,” she writes after her mother describes witnessing her first descent into the abyss. She is equally adept at evoking the depths of depression, and the alien feeling of her own body while in that state.

Armstrong is accompanied on her journey by her mother, who takes her to every treatment, and has to watch her child sink down into near-death ten times. While Armstrong remembers nothing, her mother has to watch the doctors grab her daughter’s almost lifeless body, and intubate her as quickly as possible so that she is not deprived of oxygen. Their supportive relationship was particularly poignant to me with the knowledge that Armstrong’s departure from the Mormon faith had strained her family relationships. There are a lot of affecting scenes in the book, but the one that really choked me up was when she describes how her mother once very matter-of-factly told her that their relationship would never be the same again without Jesus. This coldness is quite the opposite of the relationship that is illustrated in this book.

While Armstrong writes forthrightly about her mother and stepfather, and how they shared in this experience with her, she is more circumspect in the way she writes around her ex-husband, and about her father. Her ex is chiefly present in her fear of losing her children. In fact, the reason she let her depression go on so long, and get so bad without treatment, was because she was afraid he would find out how sick she was, and take her daughters away. Her relationship with her father is also fraught, and she had not intended to share the experimental treatment with him until her mother requested that she do so. There is a lot going on beneath the surface of these two relationships that is not deeply delved into, and yet the story is significantly shaped by their absence.

While the body of the text is written by Armstrong, and focuses on her personal experience, the afterword is by the doctor who led the study. While he is hopeful and excited by the preliminary work his team has done, he brings the necessary emphasis that this still an experimental treatment in need of further investigation. It balances Armstrong’s personal experience of success with the need for additional study in order to better understand how and why such a treatment might be successful, or what its limitations might be. Altogether, it is a fascinating account of one woman’s mental health struggles, and how they might intersect with treatment and acceptance more broadly.

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Winds of Marque

Cover image for Winds of Marque by Bennett R. Coles by Bennett R. Coles

ISBN 978-0-06-282035-8

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “He was a nobleman, and they were notorious for charming young sailors all the way to heartbreak. He was also the executive officer of this ship. The Navy had no formal ban on relationships within a crew—centuries of space travel had proven the impossibility of stopping people in isolated, close quarters from seeking each other out—but when it crossed ranks there was always the risk of trouble.”

When Executive Officer Liam Blackwood’s ship is put into refit by a reckless space race ordered by his aristocrat Captain, the XO is on the lookout for a new commission when he is approached by Lord Grandview and Lady Riverton. With the quiet blessing of the Emperor, Grandview is ordering an undercover mission to investigate the increasing pirate activity that is threatening the Empire’s trade, and which could compromise the Navy’s supply lines if war with the Sectoids was declared. Fresh from the diplomatic corps, Captain Riverton will need an experienced second-in-command to help lead HMSS Daring’s crew as they develop their façade as a trading vessel, gather intelligence about the pirate threat, and pay their crew with a letter of marque that allows them to seize the pirated cargoes. Blackwood knows just the woman to serve as Quartermaster for such an unusual arrangement, but recruiting her means facing up to his growing feelings for Petty Officer Amelia Virtue.

Bennett R. Coles bends his degree in naval history and fifteen years’ experience in the Royal Canadian Navy to fantastical ends, creating a space Navy that sails on the solar winds, and patrols a vast Empire ruled by a distant Emperor on the home world. Social class clashes with naval rank, creating a complex hierarchy to be negotiated aboard every ship. Having just quietly undermined his previous Captain to ensure that HMSS Renaissance was only damaged and not destroyed by the race to Passagia II, Subcommander Blackwood, who feels he has earned his rank by competence rather than birth, is understandably wary of the cold and aristocratic Sophia Riverton, who likes to play her cards close to the chest. Shipboard relations on Daring are further complicated by the presence of Cadet Highcastle, a high-ranking and cocksure young nobleman who is taking his maiden voyage before heading to the Naval Academy for formal study.

In many ways, Blackwood is just as cocksure as the other nobles he likes to look down his nose at, if perhaps slightly less reckless. While he thinks highly of himself and his abilities, the people around him are constantly having to wake him up to his status, which he easily loses sight of when he gets focused on his own competence. For instance, the crew is being paid in prize money, and if they seize nothing, they get paid nothing. It takes a conversation with his friend Lieutenant Swift to remind him that “what would be a useful sum of money to him would be life-changing for his propulsion officer’s entire family.” His relationship with Amelia is also complicated by the fact that she is a low-ranking officer of common birth, newly promoted to her station. When he is angry with her for an entanglement with Highcastle, it is up to her to risk his wrath and remind him that naval justice would undoubtedly fall short if she were to raise a grievance against a noble-born officer. When he tries to tell her it has nothing to do with rank or title, she responds, “you just don’t see it because you wield both with such unconscious familiarity. Do you really think Lord Highcastle would be punished if he raped a sailor? Do you think you would?” The prospect of a romance between Virtue and Blackwood is fraught by class and rank, and I was not strongly invested in seeing such a dynamic develop.

While Blackwood is portrayed as competent and experienced, I was more interested in Virtue and Riverton. Though Riverton has more experience as a diplomat than a military commander, it was clear from the beginning that she was thinking about the bigger picture in a way that Blackwood was not, and I was rooting for her to find her feet as a commander and realize her vision in a way that I was not engaged by Blackwood as a character. For his part, Blackwood never seems to consider that as Captain, she might have information he is not privy to. I was similarly interested by Amelia, who is figuring out her new role as an officer rather than a common sailor. When we see Amelia from Liam’s point of view, it is often intended to be admiring, yet somehow manages to come off as a bit condescending: “Liam was disgusted at how these men so completely objectified Virtue, but actually found himself admiring how nonchalantly she handled them. It was both painful and fascinating to watch.” Captain Riverton, for her part, easily sees Blackwood’s feelings for Amelia, and is rightfully protective of her. Winds of Marque is clearly set up for a series, and I would be most interested to see how things develop between Sophia and Amelia as they gain in mutual respect and understanding.

You might also like: Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine

A Woman of No Importance

Cover image for A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnellby Sonia Purnell

ISBN 978-0-7352-2529-9

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “Valor rarely reaps the dividends it should.”

In the midst of Nazi-occupied France, an American woman with a prosthetic leg who appears to be working as a journalist seems an unlikely candidate for one of World War II’s most successful spies. However, it was precisely this uncanny set of circumstances combined with her language skills and unique personality that allowed Virginia Hall to become an instrumental force in arming and organizing the French resistance movement. In contrast to many of her peers, she was so good at recruiting and coordinating that she gained a dangerous level of infamy in Lyon and beyond as The Limping Woman, soon becoming one of the Nazi’s most-wanted, until she was eventually forced to flee over the Pyrenees into Spain on foot. But her war would not end there, and she would go on to become one of the first women recruited into the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency after the war.

A Woman of No Importance brings to light the accomplishments of one of the war’s quietest heroes, a woman who avoided recognition, and even turned down a White House ceremony when it found her anyway. Still hoping to do field work after the war, she did not wish to draw public attention to herself. The tight-lipped policy that served her well in the war carried on throughout her life, so that she is little known today outside of intelligence circles. However, film rights for this book have reportedly been optioned, with J. J. Abrams directing, and Daisy Ridley attached to star, though no doubt both have been busy with Star Wars Episode IX.

An aspiring diplomat, Hall lost her leg in a hunting accident while stationed abroad as a clerk with the State Department in Turkey. Struggling for advancement, and repeatedly refused entrance to the diplomatic corps, she turned her back on the Department and went in search of other opportunities. She tried to join the women’s branch of the British army when war broke out, but since foreign nationals were not accepted, she eventually found herself in the French ambulance corps. With the United States remaining neutral at the start of the war, she began her work as a spy with Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), also known as the Baker Street Irregulars, or Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. Purnell’s previous book focused on the life of Clementine Churchill.

A Woman of No Importance recounts the accomplishments of a confident woman with a talent for cultivating sources and allies who trusted her implicitly, a feat many of her male peers struggled to imitate. Virginia’s confidence was also her downfall, however, in the form of a priest called Alesch, who passed off his German accent and appearance by claiming to be from the border region of Alsace. He avowed himself as an enemy of the Nazis because they had killed his father, and he spouted anti-Nazi rhetoric from his pulpit every Sunday. In fact, Alesch was a spy for the Abwehr, the German intelligence service. Virgina was suspicious of him, but believed that she could handle him. This self-confidence would prove fatal to many members of her network when she was forced to flee the country. In her absence, Alesch had enough information from his contact with her to infiltrate her circuit, and Virginia was not there to gainsay him to her more trusting contacts. Because she failed to trust her gut, much of her network would be burned, a guilt which stayed with her, and compelled her to go back into France after a narrow escape. In the Haute-Loire, she would become a legend for organizing and arming the maquisards.

Most of Virginia’s fellow field agents were men, with whom she had relationships that ranged from collaborative to adversarial. The women she worked with were largely French recruits into her information network. Initially distrustful of sex workers, viewing them as collaborators if they took Nazi clients, Virginia eventually came to rely on the resourcefulness of such women. One small but fascinating aspect of this book shows how these women quietly participated in the resistance by such unorthodox means as getting enemy soldiers addicted to drugs, or deliberately infecting them with venereal diseases. This was in addition to more traditional means of assistance, such as providing safe houses, access to black market gods, or spiking an officer’s drink, and then rifling his pockets for information when he passed out.

This fascinating account takes the reader deep into the underground of the French Resistance, and behind the scenes of how the Allies worked to arm and coordinate with fighters inside the occupied country to end the war. Hall’s remarkable adventures make for a gripping, if bittersweet read. After struggling to find her place as a young woman, Hall achieved great success in the war, only to struggle to advance in her later career. What was forgiven under the exigencies of war held her back at Langley. That she is today recognized as one of the greats is but little consolation for the failure to fully utilize her talents.

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Shakespeare’s Library

Cover image for Shakespeare's Library by Stuart Kellsby Stuart Kells

ISBN 9781640091832

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“In all this time, the search came to nought. Not a trace of his library was found. No books, no manuscripts, no letters, no diaries. The desire to get close to Shakespeare was unrequited, the vacuum palpable.”

For a playwright so prolific and widely beloved—at least today—William Shakespeare left surprisingly little behind on his death in 1616 at Stratford-upon-Avon. His will makes no mention of papers or books, though he famously left his wife his second-best bed. In literary scholarship, the books, letters, and papers of famous authors become, after death, invaluable treasure troves for those who study their work. But in the case of the English language’s most famous wordsmith, no such legacy remains. Stuart Kells follows the many efforts that have been made in the four centuries since the Bard’s death to locate his papers, and the various searches and expeditions that have tried to track down Shakespeare’s library. But the itinerant playwright seems to have left little trace, and much has been made of that vacuum. This title was originally released in Australia by Text Publishing in 2018, and is being published by Counterpoint in the United States.

Shakespeare’s Library is divided into three parts, including The First Searchers, The Heretical Searchers, and Visions of Shakespeare’s Library. Kells begins with the earliest efforts to locate the Bard’s papers. It is a complex history, fraught with false leads, and red herrings. Bemused Stratford-upon-Avon locals have been known to play tricks on the treasure seekers, such as pretending that they recently burned a stack of old papers that might have belonged to their most famous son. Other searchers turned out to be frauds and con men, happily supplying the lack of Shakespeare memorabilia with documents of their own creation. This hair raising history will be enough to make you question any such future discoveries that have not been carefully vetted.

While Shakespeare is regarded as high literature today, this is far from having always been the case. Drama was considered a low art, while poetry was the pinnacle of literature. If you sift through the Elizabethan English, the Bard’s plays are filled with ribald jokes and innuendos. Indeed, the very term “bowdlerize” arises from the work of the Bowdler siblings, who created The Family Shakespeare in the 19th Century, expunging blasphemy and immorality from the plays, expurgating some ten percent of the original text to create a “cleaner” version suitable for family consumption. Indeed, Shakespeare was something of a vulgarizer of existing stories, punching them up for the stage. His shows played to popular acclaim, but little critical regard. While some book collectors did include play manuscripts in their libraries, they often did not bother to individually list them when cataloguing their collections.

The lack of survival of original play texts is even less surprising when you consider that the fad for first editions post-dates Shakespeare. Indeed, “in the seventeenth century, collectors replaced old editions with new ones, and regarded this as an improvement.” Still other collectors, more concerned with clean copies than original ones, thought nothing of a taking apart several editions, sometimes of different printings, and then rebinding them together into “mongrel editions,” thus completely destroying the “bibliographical integrity” of the books. Beyond just a history of the search for Shakespeare’s papers, Shakespeare’s Library also embeds a fascinating history of book collecting as passion and pastime.

Of course, one cannot go looking for the Bard’s papers without engaging with the Shakespeare Authorship Question. Nature abhors a vacuum, and a rush of frauds and conspiracy theories have arisen to fill it. If Shakespeare was merely a frontman for an anonymous aristocrat who was the real author of the plays, then of course it would not be surprising if he left no papers behind. Kells is an orthodox Stratfordian, but he attended university at Monash in Australia, which he discovered to be a surprising hotbed of anti-Stratfordians and Shakespeare heretics, an experience which Kells describes as being a bit like “discovering all your friends are Scientologists or swingers.” Kells is conversant with all of the various theories, as well as their problems and implications.

The argument that grows up from Shakespeare’s Library is much simpler; Shakespeare was a voracious borrower, an inveterate repurposer, perhaps even a shameless thief of existing texts. While ideas of authorship and copyright were much looser in Elizabethan times than our current understanding, Shakespeare was so egregious than even his contemporaries occasionally complained about his behaviour. Yet copious borrowing combined with diverse editors might make for exactly the sort of breadth and variety of knowledge that lead the conspiracy theorists to conclude that Shakespeare must have been an extremely well-educated and well-travelled aristocrat rather than a mere commoner who may have lacked so much a grammar school education.

Stuart Kells confidently takes the reader through this fascinating history, tracing the high highs and low lows of a centuries old quest. If the idea of Shakespeare’s original manuscripts makes you salivate a little, if the Shakespeare Authorship question horrifies and fascinates you in equal measure, then this is the book for you.

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