Follow Your Passion (Don’t Read Books That Bore You)
I like stories about women. In college I read Ulysses and thought Molly Bloom’s chapter was the best. In my 19th century American literature class my favorite books were The Scarlet Letter and My Antonia. In my British literature classes I loved Austen and Woolf. I adore Hamlet, MacBeth and Lear, but I don’t like the King Henry plays. I don’t care for Hemingway. I thought Moby Dick was a bit long. I liked the beginning and the end, but all I remember about the middle was that there were four chapters on whale brains and one about whale penises. When there are no women in a book, I tend to lose interest. I’ve had a Bechdel test for books long before the Bechdel test was a thing.
My favorite books have multiple female characters. These women are strong and creative and integral to the story. This is a reasonable preference, but for a long time, I treated it like a dirty little secret. Women’s stories tend to be about families. Books covering the so-called “serious” topics, such as war and politics, are mostly about men. Stories about exploration or journeys and quests are also mostly about men. As a result, I usually like these books less and, for a long time, I worried that my lack of interest in these stories meant that I was somehow a less serious reader.
“Chick-lit” is a term used to describe light and fluffy stories about women. I kept my preference secret because I believed it was the equivalent of a chick-lit approach to the canon. This was a silly concern, and the stories I loved proved that. Books like Toni Morrison’s Beloved assured me that tales about love and family are serious. Beloved is about the relationship between a mother and daughter. It is also a story about law, politics and justice. No one thinks Beloved is “fluffy.”
In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne also uses the typical female themes of love, marriage and family to explore questions regarding fate and free will. Hawthorne used a woman’s story to convey these universal themes. Thus, as I sat in my freshman English class, it dawned on me that if my professor doesn’t think Hester’s story is less important than Ahab’s, then neither should I.
It was the realization that stories about families and relationships were a different but still valuable way of addressing important issues that helped determine my career path. Today, I am a family law professor. I teach the law of relationships. Nevertheless, I sometimes still struggle with the feeling that by focusing on families and relationships, people view me as a less serious academic. Within the world of legal academia, family law is often dismissed as less important than other types of law.
When I was a law student, the family law class at my school was small. The enrollment was mostly female and students were left with the impression that the school believed family law was insignificant. This impression was further enforced by the fact that although a number of the professors wrote about family law, they never described it that way. Instead, most of these professors disguised their interest in family law by calling their scholarship constitutional law.
It would have been very easy to let this dismissive attitude towards family law dissuade me. However, I had already learned unequivocally that it was wrong.
The books I loved taught me that women’s stories are important and that they provide a new way of approaching old ideas. My book, Buying A Bride is about marriage. In fact, it is about a very specific form of marriage, mail order marriages. At the same time, it is also a history of the United States. Through the stories of mail-order brides, the book tells a story about war, empire, law and justice.
When I tell non-lawyers that I wrote a legal book, I often see their eyes glaze over. I feel their growing boredom as they politely ask me “About what?,” and I watch as they brace themselves for a book with the name like “Law and Empire,” “On Law” or “Law: A History.” Instead, when I tell them it’s about mail order brides they tend to pause and then, in a surprised voice say, “I’d actually read that.” I love that moment. Women’s stories are compelling. I learned that a long time ago and I am so glad I did. Otherwise, instead of writing a book on mail order brides, I might have forced myself to write Law: A History.
Marcia A. Zug is Associate Professor of Law at the University of South Carolina. Her latest book is Buying a Bride: An Engaging History of Mail-Order Matches (NYU Press, 2016).
The image featured at the beginning of this post is of Jean-Honoré Fragonard‘s Young Girl Reading.