What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Friday, July 8, 2011

When Individual Decisions Lead to Societal Mayhem

I've been reading Unnatural Selection by Mara Hvistendahl this week as I've been editing the galleys for the paperback edition of my own book, Chasing Goldman Sachs, (which you can order online today, or can find in bookstores after the paperback release date in October!) but I don't think it's a coincidence that as I made my way through the pages of Hvistendahl's impeccably-researched tome I began to recognize some parallels. What happens when we are reluctant to admit that some of our most closely-held beliefs might have an ugly underside? (In Hvistendahl's, it's the right to abortion as a cornerstone of a woman's right to control her fertility; on Wall Street, it's the right to pursue profits of all kinds.) Why don't we acknowledge that simply because something is legal, and reasonable for one person to do, that doesn't mean everyone can do it without the gravest potential consequences? (It's OK for one person to select the sex of their unborn child, or to buy a $500,000 house with a weird mortgage, no down payment and an income of only $30,000 a year, but when a significant number of people do so, the balance is no longer sustainable.) Above all, why can't we recognize that just because we can do something, practically and legally, that doesn't mean that we should? Why can't we learn to think about the wider context and just say no?

Admittedly, Hvistendahl doesn't get that philosophical in her excellent book. What she is trying to do is show just how badly out of whack birth rates have become not just in countries like India and China (where the preference for boys has already been well documented) but also Korea, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Albania. And, she worries, this is likely to spread to other countries as the level of affluence grows together with the wide availability of the technology that is needed to verify the gender of a fetus -- before aborting it if it's a girl. Don't think for a moment that cultural mores about the value of human life will stop them from doing so, she warns -- she provides evidence that in some of the worst offenders, such as China, abortion was traditionally thought of as heinous and not viewed in matter-of-fact terms, at the time the transition began. Hvistendahl doesn't stop with diagnosing the problem, but extends her analysis to the early signs of how male-dominated societies appear to function: ironically, women are less valued as individuals and viewed only as scarce sexual partners; those who can't find wives or partners in Taiwan and China venture to neighboring countries and buy or even kidnap brides, forcing them into marriage or prostitution.

This thought-provoking book made me wonder and ponder what happens when multiple cherished ideals collide. We want, for instance, a "sustainable" planet, not one where everyone sets out to maximize the number of children they have. At the same time, we want women to be able to control their fertility -- to have that right. And we cherish the idea of personal freedom. But what happens when these are incompatible? Hvistendahl looks at the panic of the 1950s and 1960s, when under the influence of U.S. population control "experts", governments cracked down on their citizens' fertility using forced abortions and forced sterilizations -- ironic, given that affluence has led people to voluntarily restrict the size of their families. Now the problem is the opposite one: how to tell people that their single child can't be a boy; that they can't select what gender child they have but must put up with what comes along. Not surprisingly, no government has been willing to grasp that thorny challenge. Rules banning sex-selective abortions are honored only in principle, not in practice in nations like India.

The kind of world that is created when there are seven men for every five women (or whatever ratio emerges) is likely to be an ugly one, Hvistendahl argues, convincingly and with considerable data. And until we see the impact of our individual decisions decades from now -- when the problem will be far worse -- we're not likely to do anything about it. (Global warming, anyone?) And the challenges are significant. Already, Hvistendahl notes that activists are using sex-selective abortions as a way to try and remove the access of all women to any king of abortion. The intentions were good -- give parents a way to ensure they'd have a boy early on in their reproductive careers, and they'd have fewer children trying -- but ended up fitting in poorly with the reality that parents were ready to limit family size anyway.

This is a book that is straightforward and simple -- no scientific or statistical terms to make you wrinkle your brows in puzzlement -- and that ultimately I couldn't put down as I became just as caught up in the narrative as I would have been in any thriller. Hvistendahl writes with style and panache, and at the same time never lets her own anger and frustration overtake her reason. The only point at which she fails to do justice to her argument is in a few pages late in the book, when she attempts to argue -- awkwardly -- that the level of violence in U.S. society has something to do with the male-dominated frontier traditions of the 19th and early 20th centuries (when women were scarce) and their prevalence in popular culture. I looked for evidence -- she is scrupulous when providing proof of her theories everywhere else -- but beyond the data of the demographic makeup of the frontier societies during the Gold Rush, etc., Hvistendahl doesn't bother providing facts supporting this part of her theory. (There's no study showing that men who commit violent acts have a disproportionate fondness for TV shows or movies set in the old West, for instance.) That sloppiness stands in odd contrast to her punctilious approach in the rest of the book, and is the reason I can't give more than 4.4 stars to what could have been a 5-star book. But it's still a very important analysis of an under-reported problem. Or rather, while the problem is often remarked upon, no one until now has dared to tackle a rigorous analysis of why it exists and what may happen next.

The reason I bumped this to the top of my "must read" list? Well, I stumbled across this article in the Daily Telegraph about Indian parents paying surgeons to turn healthy baby girls, whose gender is very clear at birth, into baby boys -- albeit sterile baby boys. (This isn't the same as taking a child born with confusing genitalia into one or the other gender -- a very rare condition.) In their quest for boy children, parents, it seems will not only abort a six-month fetus but put their baby girls through unnecessary and dangerous surgery. For the record, regardless of what I myself might do, I"m staunchly in favor of giving any woman the right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term. But after reading this book and this article, I felt as if my support for what I still believe to be an important issue (no woman who has been raped, in my opinion, should be forced by others to bear her rapist's child if she chooses not to) has been abused. These are important issues, not just in terms of the principles and beliefs we cling to, but for the future of our planet. Hvistendahl points out very carefully the perils of meddling in them -- a lesson we should try to recall if policymakers set out to try and reverse the gender imbalance by a fresh series of equally ham-handed policies.

I won a copy of this book in a publisher giveaway on Twitter! And yes, it's from PublicAffairs, one of my "must watch" publishers... (That's how I heard about the giveaway in the first place -- I'm a Twitter "follower"...)


  1. This is a fantastic review -- I really want to read this book. That article you linked to is totally scary!

    By the way, I found your blog via the Tiny Library Literary Blog Directory. Count me in as a new subscriber!

  2. Thanks! for the comments & the subscription! This is a deeply unnerving book -- one that I'm glad I read but that describes a problem that is so complex that I can't see any simple solutions. (Besides, as someone once said, simple solutions are invariably the wrong ones...)
    That blog directory is definitely a great resource!

  3. Thanks for introducing me to this book, it sounds very interesting. And glad that the directory is bringing you some new traffic :)