I grew up in a home with 30,000 books in it. This isn't an exaggeration. It's the count my father offered when I asked him in a fit of irritation, sometime when I was in high school and feeling particularly irked by the stacks and stacks and cases and cases of volumes amidst which I was trying to live my sulky teenaged life. I don't know how to explain this exactly, short of noting that my father is a rare book librarian, my mother an English professor; they (especially he) are book collectors. So they owned 30,000 books 20 years ago. I'm going to guess there are another 5,000 in there now.
As an adult, rather than rejecting the bibliophilic aesthetic, I have, of course, embraced it. Books to me mean home, an unending supply of sentences to enjoy and learn from. Books line both walls of our small living room, the kids' room. What I didn't anticipate was having to get a whole new bookcase to hold the books I turned to while writing my own recent book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation
When I started working on the book in 2010, I expected it to be a volume of mostly contemporary journalism. I planned to (and did!) interview about 100 women across the country about their experiences of unmarried and late-married life. I knew I'd be relying on some of the books that had been the ones to get me interested in these subjects: Stephanie Coontz's Marriage: A History
; Betsy Israel's Bachelor Girl
; Nancy Cott's Public Vows
, Bella DePaulo's Singled Out
, and Eric Klinenberg's Going Solo
But as I began to get into some of the history, turning to some of my most trusted resources, including Gail Collins's When Everything Changed
and Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns
, I began to realize how robust the history of single women in America was. And I also realized that the writers who had teased it out were academics, scholars who had specialized in the study of marriage patterns and even more specifically on the lives and records of unmarried women. By far, the book that provided me the most crucial roadmap to the history I wanted to tease out in my story was Lee Virginia Chambers-Schiller, whose 1984 study of unmarried middle-class white women in the late 18th and early 19th century, Liberty: A Better Husband
, was indispensable, readable, and is cited all over my book.
Soon I was also turning to other classic scholarship on women, independence, and the new nation, including Mary Beth Norton's Founding Mothers and Fathers
and Liberty's Daughters
, Christine Jacobson Carter’s Southern Single Blessedness
, Frances Smith Foster's 'Til Death and Distance Do Us Part
, and, about a later period, Caroll Smith-Rosenberg's Disorderly Conduct
I learned so much about the relationships between single women and cities and wage-earning, not just in the United States but in early modern Europe, from Singlewomen in the European Past
, edited by Judith Bennett and Amy Froide, as well as from Christine Stansell's classic City of Women
, and then later from Kathy Peiss's remarkable Cheap Amusements
, which is such a pleasure to read. Then there was Alice Kessler-Harris's terrific Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States
and Joanne Meyerowitz's Women Adrift
My thinking about race and gender was sharpened so much by a book I have long loved, Paula Giddings's When and Where I Enter
, and by another that was new to me: Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought
, edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall. And when it came to the contemporary work on poverty and the impact of economic inequality and systemic racism, I turned to Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow
, and to Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, whose Promises I Can Keep
remains so valuable.
And as you can see from the photos I've enclosed, I'm naming only a fraction of the volumes that now populate the thin desk and shelves I've had built into a corner of my bedroom. These books are my resources, my refuge, and they make my home my home.