My mother was a discriminating reader, not a voracious one. She was the kind of book-lover who cruised the shelves for big, perspective-changing stories. Don't waste her time with intellectual yackety-yak, ridiculous plot turns, or titillating celebrity anecdotes—just give her a page-turner with some serious ideas. It was she who turned me on to, among others, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Look Homeward Angel, The Cruel Sea, and The Magic Mountain. She tried to get me interested in a lot of others, including a Henry James novel or two, for which I probably rolled my eyes and waved my hands helplessly, the way young people do when they just can't be bothered. (If only I could talk to her about that now...)
My mother’s choice of books came to mind the other day while ambling around Barnes & Noble in Bethesda, Maryland. There, among the new fiction and non-fiction releases, the discounts and novelty quasi-books, were several tables hawking gifts for Mom on Mother’s Day. Books Mom Will Love offered a collection of inspirational self-realization tales (To the Fullest by Lorraine Bracco), celebrity memoirs du jour (Oprah Winfrey, Candice Bergen, Lena Dunham), a book of photographs of swimming babies, a military mom’s account of “surviving life on the home front” (Be Safe, Love Mom, Elaine Lowry Brye) and more in this vein. A volume about Downton Abbey was the most ambitious offering of the lot.
Pallid stuff for a mother like mine, I thought. Where were the stories that made you feel as if you were living someone else’s life? If I had showed up on Mother’s Day with a copy of Bracco’s book (addressing those ever-present self-esteem issues and offering tips on weight control), or even Dunham’s visceral tales of millennial womanhood, my mother would have asked with one searching look: What were you thinking?
Over near the Barnes & Noble cash registers, though, the Mother’s Day selections dipped into even stranger dimensions. I can live with The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Pretty Prudent Home—who doesn't need help with housework and advice on interior decorating? But do we need to dwell on folding clothes and “letting go” of needless things on Mother’s Day? Same with The Art of the Apology by Lauren M. Bloom, a high-impact gift if there ever was one. Amazon informs us that the book won the Grand Prize Integrity Award, for the 2010 International Book Awards. Kudos. But why spring it on your mother, ever? Maybe Mom has a lot explaining to do, but think hard about whether you want to give her an in-your-face reminder on the day we’re celebrating her having brought you into the world. It would be a memorable Mother’s Day, I’ll give you that. Memorable like the day your mother deleted you from the will.
There was also an assortment of dour religious-themed books, A Mother’s Daily Prayer Book, Bible Passages for Women, Who’s Who in the Bible, Mother Teresa’s No Greater Love and, etc., ad nauseam, Deus misereatur. Their presence suggested to me that maybe motherhood is some kind of religious state that gift-givers can only aspire to enhance. If those didn't get your mother on the right spiritual track, there was also Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment, by Tal Ben-Shahar, who has a Ph.D., in happiness or secrets or something.
At the store's information desk I asked the young clerk who had made the Mother’s Day section. “It comes from way, way up the ladder,” she said. “Corporate.”
This, then, is your vision of motherhood as determined by corporate functionaries and their favorite publishing houses. The Barnes & Noble merchandisers suggest that mothers are sainted souls, stuck forever in a sentimental baby-mommy embrace, with only a vague interest in the larger world, mostly via celebrities whose lives are much more interesting than their own. Mediocrity, thy name is Mom.
How much does this affect the gift choices of unsophisticated children or of dads in hurries? Maybe not a lot. But just the presence of this sort of a display perpetuates a hackneyed view of women who’ve already been through a lot in their lives, many of them with tales of their own that would turn Lena Dunham's hair white. Barnes & Noble serves as a sort of cultural center in Bethesda; many of the chain's 649 stores probably do the same. High school and college kids drink coffee in the cafe and cruise the stacks. It’s sad that, at a time when at least two women are vying to be the one taking that early morning phone call at the White House and Ronda Rousey is kickin' more ass than Mayweather and Pacquiao combined, an influential book emporium like Bethesda’s Barnes & Noble still thinks of mature women as stay-at-home gals looking for mild inspiration and ways to keep their fingers busy.
Modern mothers deserve better than Who’s Who in the Bible. How about Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See? J.R. Moehringer describes it as the kind of book “you savor, and ponder, and happily lose sleep over, then go around urging all your friends to read." Or Cheryl Strayed’s Wild? Subversively, not safely, gender-specific. Both dangerous, in their way, even if they're a minute fraction as dangerous as, say, carrying a child to term and birthing it.
“We had both of those in our Mother’s Day display last year,” says Hannah Depp, merchandise and display manager for Politics and Prose, a couple of miles south of Barnes & Noble in Washington. Depp, who was described by one of her colleagues as “the display guru” at the independent bookstore, says that at the corporate level, there’s a Mother’s Day-Father’s Day polarity that comes out as “mothers and babies, and fathers and war stories.”
Her own display included I Am Malala, John Romer’s A History of Ancient Egypt, the Mavis Staples autobiography, Cokie Roberts’ Capital Dames and more. Heavy on the gender specific, yes, but light on the frittery, not-quite-a-book fare (though The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up makes another appearance). There’s still enough variation in there, enough gristle and bone, to suggest that these are books for people who lead real lives.
Variability comes with the independent bookstore territory, Depp says. “The indies have the luxury of turning a display into a community conversation,” she says.
Your own conversation is easy enough. You could start by helping your mother tidy the house—it’s magic, apparently—and then ask her about the kinds of books she likes. If she’s into self-realization books or celebrity memoirs, you've probably already gotten her a turtleneck.