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Book Box | When I see a woman read

Mar 09, 2024 09:00 PM IST

From stolen moments to public shields, the many meanings of a woman with a book

Dear Reader,

A woman reads a book(Author) PREMIUM
A woman reads a book(Author)

When I see a woman read, I see guilty pleasure. When I see a woman read, I see guts and the ability to defy the subtle subtext, put the world aside, and just read.

When I see a woman read, it takes me back to afternoons in Jamshedpur. To my mother, a voracious reader, bringing out her bag of books, reading one Mills and Boon after another. Afternoons were her time- we three kids knew to our peril, that this was a space we must not encroach on. It seemed to last forever- our mother was unavailable to us.

Looking back, I wonder about time’s relativity. The afternoons started at 2 and ended promptly at 4 pm, which was tea time. In a few hours, my father would be home and preparations for his return began long before. The first item on the agenda was the disappearance of the bag of books. Back to the closet, the books went, where they were consigned to camouflage, at the bottom of the hanging cupboard. There the book bag lay, below my father’s winter coats, until the next afternoon.

Today, in libraries around the world, I look around. Too often, I see more men than women. In the reading room at Delhi Gymkhana Club, for instance, there are always more men, poring over a paper, or absorbed in a book. Halfway across the world, in the reading room at Bryant Park in New York, it is the same story.

The Reading Room at Bryant Park, New York City(Author)
The Reading Room at Bryant Park, New York City(Author)

But then I step into a café. And when I see a woman read here, I see companionship. And protection. A lone woman at a table in a café, at a restaurant, brandishes her book as a buffer, her shield against gate-crashers, starers and such like. Such a woman enjoys her book because it’s also her protection. And yes, she might still be subject to a comment or two, but chances are it will be about her book – reading The Covenant of Water, she might hear “That’s such a wonderful saga” or "That’s a really long book".

The thing is though, mostly, I don’t see that many women read. At least in public spaces.

"I do my reading via audiobooks," a friend says. As a new mom, she heard an entire series of Louise Penny mysteries as she breastfed her baby. Another friend listens to Ruth Ozeki's The Book of Form and Emptiness on audio and then The Eighth Life as she does her laundry and vacuums her house. A third reads on planes, picking up the latest bestseller from an airport bookstore and finishing it by the end of the journey. Sometimes she wishes she could curate her reading more efficiently.

Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books is an award-winning podcast which taps into this cultural compression. Hosted by Zibby Owens, mom of four kids, and also daughter of Blackstone Capital founder Stephen A Schwarzman, this podcast features 1,600+ author interviews with more than 15 million downloads, patronised by moms who desperately want to read.

Zibby Owens, host of Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Podcast(Zibby Owens)
Zibby Owens, host of Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Podcast(Zibby Owens)

As a young mom, I managed to read a lot – all children’s books. I read aloud to our three daughters. When my husband and I travelled anywhere, we would make for the closest bookstore; he would head to the sections on evolution, history and business, while I, like a good mommy, went straight to the children’s section. I discovered some amazing gems here, picture books and Newberry and Caldecott award winners, time travel and sci-fi, and there was a delight in that, so I am not grumbling. But that’s how it was.

So, when I see a woman read, I see resourcefulness. I see gumption, driving force and even desperation, reading in bits and bytes between the demands of the day, balancing the burdens of work and life, reading to keep up with a profession, reading to make sense of relationships, reading for parenting and reading for that rarest indulgence – for relaxation.

What about you dear Reader? What do you see, when you see a woman read?

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at sonyasbookbox@gmail.com

FOR MORE ON WOMEN AND READING

The Double Lives of Working Women with books for women in the workplace (and men too) And a conversation with Kavitha Murali, writer of the Girl at Work newsletter.

The Goddess, the Writer of Science, and Women Who Fight and a conversation with Mahima Vashisht, writer of the feminist newsletter Womaning in India.

Fighting the Patriarchs with a Bookstore Crawl in NYC and meeting the amazing Angela Saini, author of The Patriarchs.

Moms Don’t Have Time To Read: A Conversation with Zibby Owens

The Quiet Subversion of Women at Leisure

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