In Defense of Books

A year or two ago my friend Brewster Kahle told me he had been asking people, “when is the last time you read a book? Cover to cover?” Predictably, the answers were discouraging. In the age of the Internet, people still talk about books, praise books, and condemn books; but actually reading books is rare.

When I first heard of feminist author Andrea Dworkin, in the early 1990’s, I was told she said all heterosexual sex is rape. In popular discourse, “het sex is rape” was considered the gist of her work.

Well, I could easily form an opinion about that, and I did. Of course all heterosexual sex isn’t rape! What a dumb idea. I didn’t have to read any books to know that! So I didn’t.

It was a few decades before I finally read Dworkin’s Intercourse. I had been seeing endless condemnations of “TERF”s – “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists” – online, and was constantly admonished to “educate myself” because I had asserted that transwomen are male. Since I had spent my 20’s and 30’s immersed in San Francisco Sex-Positive and Kink and LGBT culture, and therefore had known many transwomen (including a few lovers), I wondered where my education was lacking. I was well versed in Queer Theory, but I realized then I had never actually read one of these “radical feminists.”

And so I learned Dworkin never wrote “all heterosexual intercourse is rape.” Her thoughts about sex were a lot more nuanced. I was surprised by how passionately and sensitively she wrote about it; clearly she was heterosexual, in spite of (or along with) declaring herself a Political Lesbian in her activist years. I was also persuaded by many of her other radical feminist ideas. Dworkin had been unfairly maligned, and because I fell for it, I had missed out.

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I am part of the moderation team of Spinster, a woman-centered, radical-feminist-leaning social media platform founded half a year ago, in August 2019. A few weeks after our small team had formed, one of the moderators started denouncing Lesbian Feminist author Sheila Jeffreys, and publicly wishing her harm. She explained it was because Jeffreys advocated Political Lesbianism. A young lesbian, this mod considered Political Lesbianism lesbophobic, homophobic, and dangerous. As far as she was concerned, Jeffreys said sexual orientation is a choice, making her no different from fundamentalist Christians and conversion therapy advocates.

Well, I could easily form an opinion about that, and I did. Of course sexual orientation isn’t a choice! What a dumb idea. I didn’t have to read any books to know that!

Over the next couple days, the young moderator accused Spinster’s founders, other mods, and many of its members of “lesbophobia.” If one doesn’t vocally condemn Jeffreys and Political Lesbianism, the logic went, one supports it, and therefore hates lesbians. She was joined by others, and a rift formed, with some Spinster users canceling their accounts in protest.

Time has taught me to be skeptical of the condemnation of authors and their ideas, so it was only a few weeks before I read Jeffrey’s The Lesbian Heresy. Just as Dworkin never said all het sex is rape, Jeffreys never said sexual orientation is a choice. I was especially surprised – and moved – that so much of The Lesbian Heresy was about the very same Sex-Positive and Kink and LGBT worlds I had been immersed in in my youth. Jeffreys helped me piece together events of the 1980’s and 90’s I had never connected; connections that help explain the condemnation of Andrea Dworkin, the replacement of Radical Feminism with Liberal Feminism, the academic acceptance and promotion of porn, and the near extinction of Lesbian Feminism.

That left me with a different understanding of Political Lesbianism and the movement from whence it arose, Lesbian Feminism. I could not in good faith condemn it. I recommended The Lesbian Heresy on Spinster, where arguments about Political Lesbianism rage on. As far as I know, no one condemning it has actually read The Lesbian Heresy; and by the logic of Social Media, or social groups in general, they don’t have to, because the issue has already been summarized for them as Political Lesbianism = Sexual Orientation Is A Choice = Homophobia.

The fact that I had read and was recommending a book angered some women even more. “Oh she read a book and now she’s straightsplaining lesbianism to lesbians!” I was surprised to be resented for reading, and wanting to discuss, a Lesbian Feminist book. I am surprised that Sheila Jeffreys, as lesbian as any lesbian who ever lesbianed, and an excellent writer to boot, is so maligned by women who haven’t actually read her words.

I am open to nuanced arguments, but those don’t happen on social media. Everything gets distilled into soundbites, phrases like “born that way” and “trans women are women!” These thought-terminating memes are effective political cudgels, but anathema to understanding reality. Good books are the opposite.

There are also bad books. I recently read one called The 57 Bus, which resembles an extended Tumblr. But even it was more nuanced than online discourse. I read it for a nonfiction book group I’m part of. I found it agonizingly sexist, and it made me angry; I read it anyway, because I am a grown-up and capable of reading things I disagree with. And it wasn’t completely without merit: it discusses some important issues, in spite of being spun for a target market of white Liberal virtue-signalers. Reading the whole book allowed me to make reasoned arguments, and better understand the intellectual pablum that is the main diet of schools right now.

Some books are overlong. Some books contain important information, but are poorly written. We can’t read everything, certainly not every book that is recommended to us.

But perhaps we can acknowledge that Internet memes, denunciations, and simple summaries of entire books might be missing a world of nuance.

I recently recommended Lierre Keith’s book The Vegetarian Myth to a couple vegan friends, because they told me they’d never heard even one reasonable argument in favor of carnivorism. I personally don’t eat birds or mammals, and I very much appreciate vegans, and I don’t want to convert anyone; but The Vegetarian Myth makes compelling arguments, and expanded my ideas about eating, life, death, and my own motivations for eschewing meat. (The book had no effect on my dietary choices, proving that it is possible to appreciate arguments without capitulating to them.) Still, my friends refuse to read it because they are certain they already have already heard anything it could contain, plus they read a Wikipedia summary which was easy to condemn. They told me they won’t read the book, but invited me to sum it up for them in a sentence or two. I said I’d try.

But I can’t. The reason good books exist is some things can’t be summed up in a sentence. Or even a paragraph. Or even an entire blog post. 

I used to pride myself on being able to distill complex ideas into simple one-liners, an essential skill for a cartoonist. Refining messages into easily digestible memes is a crucial tool of propaganda and advertising, and I’ve employed my talents in many an ideological battle. Increasingly, though, I don’t want to do battle. I just want to have a conversation. I am lonely, I am tired, and I want to discuss the world, not argue you into compliance, or dazzle you with my clever memes.

Eh, I’m gonna go read a book.

 

 

 

 

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Author: Nina Paley

Animator. Director. Artist. Scapegoat.

9 thoughts on “In Defense of Books”

  1. Absolutely agree. The right book, at the right time, can change everything. It can leave you different, right down to your DNA.

    To quote Mr. Werner Herzog, “Read, read, read, read, read. Those who read own the world; those who immerse themselves in the Internet or watch too much television lose it.”

    Thank you for reminded as to The Power of The Word.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly. I don’t read nearly as much as I used to – only about one book per week. Which means I don’t read books on more days than I do. I need to read more.

    The most recent book I re-read this week was Terry Pratchett’s Carpe Jugulum; on the surface a book about witches versus vampires, but actually a brilliant essay on the ease with which amoral people can manipulate others to do their bidding, and how older women are often the only ones who see what they’re up to, and can fight back.

  3. Once upon a time, I would go through about a book a day. In the 21st Century, this has declined to about a book a week. Right now I’m reading Doug McAdam’s “Freedom Summer” about SNCC, Mississippi, the Freedom Summer and its aftermath. It’s not a new book, originally published in 1988, but quite a work of history.

  4. I was with you 100% up to the Vegetarian Myth stuff. I’ve read excerpts and other writing of Lierre Keith and found nothing compelling and nothing I hadn’t already heard before. I read at least a dozen nonfiction books last year and have a dozen more queued up, and see no reason to make time for this one. But feel free to offer a compelling argument against veganism I haven’t heard, that’s in this book, and I will put it on my list.

  5. “I am open to nuanced arguments, but those don’t happen on social media.” Exactly. Another example is Simone de Beauvior’s “a woman is not born but made” quoted out of context and misused by TRAs. Nothing can replace going to the source and reading the whole damn thing *before* critiquing it.

  6. Conversations, tolerance, patience, development of ideas, generosity, and learning as opposed to propaganda, judgement, and animosity? That would be nice.

    Learning is on my mind because it’s time for my oldest daughter to go to college. She’s gotten into and scholarships for some really nice schools, RISD, SCAD, MICA, and others. They still cost a lifetime’s worth of debt. What would you do if you were her age?

  7. I agree completely with your point on books and I gained value from having read Jeffrey’s books. But I just want to make sure you hear my point on why political lesbianism as it is practiced is a problem.

    The way I see it, and the way many other lesbians see it, is that the problem with political lesbianism is the fact that they chose to use the word lesbian instead of the word bisexual. To this day political lesbians when describing themselves will still say they are ‘lesbians’ while omitting the word ‘political’. While in reality most are bisexual women who chose to be with women only.

    This still happens even among modern day Radfems. For example Terri Strange used to call herself a ‘dyke’ and ‘lesbian’, she would involve herself in the lesbian community while never mentioning the fact that she was actually a political lesbian. Then recently she partnered up with a man and had to backtrack on everything she said.

    I know maybe it seems like a small thing to be bothered by but lesbians are such a small community that these women claiming to be lesbians instead of making it clear that they are political lesbians is a problem.

    By doing things like that they co-opted an experience that is not theirs to co-opt. By principle it’s the same as the issue behind the Transgender movement. Males identifying as women and thereby changing and destroying the original meaning of the word ‘woman’. The transgender trend managed to change the legal definition of the word ‘woman’ to include males and that’s what’s causing the issues with males being included in women’s sports, prisons and every other space.

    By co-opting the word ‘lesbian’ political lesbians are by the principle of it doing the same thing. Taking a word meant to mean ‘females who are only attracted to females’ and changing the meaning to include bisexuals and in some cases straight women.

    That’s a huge problem for lesbians, the issue is not the fact that it implies lesbianism is a choice, it’s the fact that it’s actually changing and co-opting the meaning of a word that makes it a problem.

    If people end up agreeing that political lesbians can call themselves lesbians then what am I supposed to do to differentiate my experiences from theirs? Am I supposed to only use the word homosexual now to describe myself accurately? It’s going to lead to the same escalation where they’ll start using the word homosexual as well.

    The good thing is most modern day political lesbians are switching to calling themselves Febfems instead. I hope you see this comment because I no longer participate in any radfem space but I’ve been a long-term fan of yours even before you started posting on this issue.

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