28 Mar 2013

Lean in to Literature

5 Comments Book Club Notes, Book Reviews, Personal Thoughts

A drawing of an ornate design on paper.In her highly-publicized bestseller Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg seeks to understand why working women still struggle to achieve parity in positions of leadership. As the chief operating officer of Facebook, she has a good view from the top and offers practical advice for building a successful career. She writes, “Women are hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves…These internal obstacles deserve a lot more attention, in part because they are under our own control.”

Some readers are critical of Sandberg, claiming that her message is aimed only at those women already groomed for positions of power. However, at the core of her vision is a question at the heart of  good literature–how does a human being overcome significant challenges to find her or his place in the world?

At this time, www.whatsmartwomenread.com is revisiting one of Pearl S. Buck’s classics, Pavilion of Women. Published more than sixty years ago, the novel  follows the evolution of Madame Wu, the matriarch of an important Chinese family. Her transformation begins on her 40th birthday when she makes a conscious decision to satisfy some of her own longings. Prior to this time, Madame Wu cultivated perfection by making a fine art of managing her family and its affairs; nonetheless, she never explored her inner feelings or personal desires. Her life was relegated to ‘duty’ (not unlike most women in the 21st century who struggle to balance family, work and spiritual growth).

Madame Wu remembers the words Brother Andre (the character that serves as the catalyst for her insight) offered as she sought wisdom: “To lift a soul above its natural level is a dangerous act. Souls, like springs, have their natural resources, and to force them beyond is against nature and therefore a dangerous act…The wisdom is to weigh and judge the measure of a soul and let it live where it belongs.” This ‘weighing’ that Brother Andre speaks of is in our own hands, and we find guidance, support and encouragement from what we read (fiction and non-fiction), and though sharing our understanding of the literature with one another. This is the greatest gift of our reading groups, and the most likely explanation of their popularity with smart women.

So, we encourage our smart women readers to consider Sandberg’s book in the context of the literature we read together. Any bildungsroman (novel centered on self-development) that we explore with one another, Richard Ford’s Canada is a recent and very good example, is the best place to look for inspiration and life lessons. Let us know what novels opened your eyes to new possibilities by posting a comment.

written by
Lisa Forman Rosen is an avid reader and facilitator of book clubs in Miami, Florida. She has worked at the University of Miami since 1986, first in the Department of English Composition as a lecturer and now at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine as a writer. Lisa created this site to share her love of literature with others and expand the conversation into the virtual world.

5 Comments for“Lean in to Literature”

  1. Laurie Kritzer says:

    This is next on my list!

  2. Joan Leader says:

    Very interesting blog! I have purchased Sheryl Sandberg’s book for myself and for my two granddaughters, and am looking forward to reading it and discussing it with “my girls.” However, in reading the blog, I was fascinated by the reference to Pearl S. Buck’s,
    “Pavillion of Women,” and will be reading that book very shortly! Thanks…

  3. TrudieA says:

    I just finished Sheryl Sandberg’s book this weekend and it was really inspirational. One of my struggles as a woman in the corporate world although not yet at the level of Ms. Sandberg, is not only how to balance life and career and my own barriers within, but also my feelings about groups to help women advance in their careers. My position was that these groups emphasized the fact that women were still not equal to men in the corporate world. After reading Lean In, I decided that I had to help and actively participate regardless of my particular feelings about these groups since at the end they achieve the goal of giving women that additional push and to address the issues that are only ours.
    Same as Joan Leader, I loved the reference to Pearl S. Buck – she is one of my old time favorite writers. I have not read Pavillion of Women but it will be in my list.
    Great post!

  4. Joy H. says:

    Hello Lisa,
    I see an error in your article above. You wrote: “Madame Wu remembers the words Brother Andre … offered as she sought wisdom: “To lift a soul above its natural level is a dangerous act. …”

    Those were not the words of Brother Andre. Instead they are the words of “Old Gentleman”, who was Madame Wu’s father. See the quote in the book on page 294 of the paperback published by Moyer Bell. It says: “But out of her youthful memories, Old Gentleman spoke to her”. Old Gentleman pointed to the lines in a book. —Joy H.

    • Lisa says:

      Indeed….you are quite right. Thank you for the correction. At least I know I have a couple of good readers visiting my site :)