Book Box: Fighting the Patriarchs with a Bookstore Crawl in NYC
Uncover the secrets of patriarchal domination in these four books. And meet the amazing Angela Saini, author of the sensational new book on the origins of patriarchy.
It’s the weekend and we decide to do a bookstore crawl. We are in New York City and it’s freezing. In Bryant Park and Union Square, the trees are bare and bedraggled and the pavements are slick with small flurries of rain and snow.
We arm ourselves with our A Book Lovers Guide to New York, and make our way across the East River to our first stop downtown — walking four frozen blocks from the subway to dive into the cosy warmth of New York’s most famous independent bookstore — Strand Books.
Downstairs is military strategy, business and science and my husband heads straight there, while our eldest daughter lingers by the fiction.
As for me, I have decided, today’s bookstore crawl will be about fighting the patriarchs. It is March, women’s history month and every bookstore is bound, pun unintended, to have a good collection. I am not disappointed — and here for you, are four must-read books for this month.
In Strand, I find The Patriarchs by Angela Saini. I just read this book on my Kindle and can’t stop talking about it. But today, I pick up the hardbound paper version, re-looking at the breadth of its timeline and the brilliance of its analysis.
From Strand, we journey to another independent bookstore — McNally Jackson Seaport. When we emerge from the subway, the skies have cleared, and there is a small sliver of sun, so we stroll by the East river, watching the boats go by, on our way to the bookstore.
Here I pick up Permission to Speak by Samara Bay. It’s an extraordinary book and bounteous in its insights on what holds women back from speaking. Bay has coached actors and scientists and has a podcast too. And while the book is useful for anybody, I feel it particularly addresses the problems many women grapple with as they grow up being told to “be quiet and be nice”.
It’s mid-afternoon now, and we decide to head homeward, to the Barnes and Noble on 7th Avenue in Brooklyn. Here, a beautiful volume, slim and bound in royal blue and gold, catches my eye. It’s the story of Galatea, told not by the Gods or by Pygmalion or male poets, but by Galatea. And oh my God, what a telling this is, upending centuries of narratives, along with a fascinating afterword from author Madeline Miller, best known for books like the Booktok (a subcommunity on TikTok) hit Circe. Galatea takes you just 30 minutes to read, and yet it’s so haunting, it stays in your head for ages afterwards. It’s a book I want to buy for everybody I know, or at least everybody I know, who has read the Greek myths or has seen My Fair Lady.
And finally, we stop by the Brooklyn Public Library. It’s exciting to be here, in this always welcoming bookish heaven.
On the book discussion tables is displayed a book by a favourite author — Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson. We borrow the book and I am hooked to this story that veers between two worlds — that of Mary Shelley and the writing of Frankenstein in 1800s Europe and a futuristic world of AI in Memphis, USA, where a Silicon Valley-like patriarchy decides to provide “sexbot” alternatives to women.
Serendipity perhaps, but this book of fiction turns out to be the perfect companion to Angela Saini’s meticulously researched The Patriarchs, as my bookstore crawl gives me both poets and quants, with fiction, nonfiction, self-help and a short story.
On then, to a long-awaited conversation — a bookish chat with the amazing Angela Saini, who tells us she was socialist before she became a feminist.
Tell us about your childhood reading.
Our home was always full of books, everything from the classics like Shakespeare to illustrated encyclopaedias. My dad in particular is an avid reader himself. But as soon as I got a library card, around the age of 7 or 8, I felt like I had entered another universe. I inhaled books, especially science fiction and fantasy like Ursula Le Guin. In those pages, I was transported to other worlds. I’ll always be grateful to my parents for letting me hide away and be a bookworm. In the summer holidays, I would read dozens in a few weeks, almost living at the library. Among those that stood out were Z for Zachariah and I’m the King of the Castle.
When you look back on your reading, have there been phases?
Of course, we become more sophisticated in our tastes as we grow. I read almost exclusively serious non-fiction now, not because I don’t love fiction, but because my job keeps adding more and more non-fiction to my reading list. I’m drawn to quite niche titles from academic presses these days because they offer expert deep dives into topics like science, history and politics. I look forward to reading lots of fiction when I retire!
You’ve written extensively on bias and racism. Were there any first-hand experiences of bias that fuelled you?
It’s difficult to be a woman or a minority and not experience some bias. I’m driven to understand why the world is the way it is, why we have inequality and hatred, and why we see some people as inferior and others as superior. But my very first book, Geek Nation, published in 2011, was largely born out of expediency — my husband and I were moving to New Delhi from London, and I thought I would use the opportunity to understand a little more about India’s growing scientific landscape. I travelled all over the country, saw so much, and learned so much.
What have been the responses to Inferior, Superior and The Patriarchs - over these years have they changed in any way?
All three books were challenging at first, crashing against people’s stereotypes and expectations, but over time there has been less and less resistance to my work. My last two books are now on many university reading lists across the world, and I regularly give lectures at academic and scientific institutions. While women were the majority of my readers when Inferior came out, these days there’s far more gender balance. I feel very lucky to have found a space within science journalism that has captured the zeitgeist.
Which writers have had the most influence on your writing?
I would say Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Anne Fausto-Sterling, Cordelia Fine, Dorothy Roberts and Kwame Anthony Appiah. But I’m always discovering new and younger thinkers who blow my mind. I think Paisley Currah’s recent book, Sex Is As Sex Does is absolutely brilliant. I draw inspiration as a journalist from George Orwell’s timeless works. I like my writing to be clean, without unnecessary padding, and always be rooted in the stories of everyday people.
Would love to know what was the first feminist book you read.
I genuinely cannot remember! I came to socialism before I came to feminism, I think. When I was at university, we were all anti-capitalists. I vividly remember reading No Logo by Naomi Klein and feeling so resentful at corporations for exploiting and manipulating consumers, and promising myself I would never sell out to a big company. I find it strange that this radicalism seems to have been largely shelved by subsequent generations. Making money, wherever it comes from, seems to have been turned into a religion. You even see feminists shilling for big beauty and fashion brands these days.
What are some of your personal favourites in feminist writing?
I love almost everything that Fatima Mernissi has written, especially Dreams of Trespass. She had a talent for drilling into the heart of family life and drawing out universal truths. Her insights are as profound now as they ever were. I open The Patriarchs with a quotation from Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero, which is devastatingly beautiful. I dare you to read it and not weep.
Are your husband and son readers as well — do your tastes in reading overlap?
When I was dating my husband, we were amused to discover we had almost exactly the same books on both our shelves! We have very similar tastes, and often share books, although he reads much more fiction these days. My son is nine and also a big reader. He has his own little collection at home and we go to the library together almost every week.
You've lived in London and now New York. What are your favourite bookstores and reading spaces in both cities?
They’re both brilliant cities for readers and writers. I feel like I have a little literary community in each. In London, I love the Newham Bookshop, Foyles, and the Children's Bookshop in Muswell Hill. In New York, the sprawling Strand bookstore on Broadway and Book Culture are stalwarts. But I spend most of my reading time in the New York Public Library in Bryant Park.
And lastly, what books are you currently reading?
Everyday Utopia by Kristen Ghodsee and I’ve just written the foreword for a lovely new book on India’s women and non-binary scientists, called Lab Hopping.
Next week, I bring you stories of invisible women and a book chat with the incredible Ira Mukhoty, a Cambridge alumna with a degree in natural history, who uncovers little-known stories about the Mughal princesses (and kings too).
Until then, Happy Reading.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed are personal