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Life Changing Books: Half the Sky

What books have changed your life? What have you read that’s really stuck with you over time? We love a captivating read as much as we love letterpress around here, and while we know it can be hard to find the time to sit down and soak up a good book, we believe it’s important to make the time. So every now & then we’d like to share with you some of the books that have impacted us, and we’d love to know your thoughts – feel free to discuss with us in the comments section below! First up, Debbie Urbanski shares her thoughts on Half the Sky.

Hi. I’m Debbie, one of the co-owners of Smock. That’s my day job at least, though I went to school for writing, and one of the things I’ve been missing lately about my grad school days is discussions about books. Not just discussions such as, “Man, I don’t have any time to read anymore,” or, “I read this article on the New York Times website,” but discussions about books we actually read and loved, or didn’t love. Though the best discussions were about the books that not only we loved but books that changed us, sometimes because of content (like Nicholas Kristof’s book below), sometimes because the writing is so perfect (see Alice Munro, Runaway), or sometimes because of how a book captures us, or a previous stage of us (see Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins, a beautiful tribute to a happy childhood). I’m starting to write this knowing no one has time to read, so here’s my secret: audio books from Audible has an amazing iPhone app that, dorky as it sounds, did change my life.  So from time to time I’d like to share some of my favorite books. And I’m always looking for recommendations — what books have changed your life?

First up is Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, written by power couple Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. I’ve been a Nicholas Kristof junky for awhile, but this book cemented my severe and utter awe of the man. Half the Sky is filled with examples of ordinary people who decided to devote themselves to making things better — specifically, making the situation of women better. It needs to be better (point 1 of the book). And it can be better (point 2 of the book — there is hope if we as individuals, and we as a country, actually start doing something!). Easy for me to say sitting here after 20+ years of schooling, and the two natural births of my children in a hospital birthing center, and all my access to good medical care and equal rights for my daughter, but oh, the heartbreaking examples of this book, and the equally heartbreaking statistics. From the introduction: “It appears that more girls have been killed in the last 50 years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century. More girls are killed in this routine “gendercide” in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century.” Wow. Kristof and WuDunn argue that the moral challenge of the 19th century was slavery; in the 20th century, the battle against totalitarianism; in the 21st century, it will be gender equality in the developing world.”

The book’s focuses are sex trafficking and forced prostitution; gender based violence (including honor killings and mass rape) and maternal mortality — and why does any of this matter to us? I mean, we know it’s all awful stuff, but why do we need to read an entire book about it? Kristof and WuDunn do address this: “Honor killings, sexual slavery, and genital cutting may seem to Western readers to be tragic but inevitable in a world far, far away. In much of the same way, slavery was once widely viewed by many decent Europeans and Americans as a regrettable but ineluctable feature of human life. It was just one more horror that had existed for thousands of years. But then in the 1780s a few indignant Britons, led by William Wilberforce, decided that slavery was so offensive that they had to abolish it. And they did. Today we see the seed of something similar: a global movement to emancipate women and girls.” I could go on and on about this book but actually my kids are waking up, so, in brief — this book would be the perfect gift for anyone college aged, who has the ability to spend a year abroad in a developing country during or right after school, as the authors encourage (how I wish I had done this rather than going to London for an off campus study program to study theater!). But it’s also the perfect read for any woman, or for anyone who cares about women, or actually anyone cares about the current state of the world, as well as the future of the world, which, hopefully, is everyone. Half the Sky is filled with inspiring examples of ordinary people who saw a problem and then decided to do something about it — and for any of us to make a difference, we first need to believe we can make a difference. If you don’t have time to read the book — well, read it. And if you still don’t have time, at least check out the book’s web site, or Kristof’s blog, or at least read his twitter feed for God’s sake!


{Photo credit: Empowered}

Doing Good in Life & Work

If I wasn’t running a letterpress invitation company, I would love to be Nicholas Kristof. He’s an editorial writer for the NY Times who is a wonderful example of using one’s life – and job – to bring about concrete change in the world. One of his focuses has been bringing attention to women’s plights around the world – childhood prostitution, for instance, or the crazy high mortality rates for women in childbirth, or the lack of education of girls. He writes, “In the 19th Century, the paramount moral challenge was slavery. In the 20th century, it was totalitarianism. In this century, it is the brutality inflicted on so many women and girls around the globe: sex trafficking, acid attacks, bride burnings and mass rape. Yet if the injustices that women in poor countries suffer are of paramount importance, in an economic and geopolitical sense the opportunity they represent is even greater. ‘Women hold up half the sky,’ in the words of a Chinese saying, yet that’s mostly an aspiration: in a large slice of the world, girls are uneducated and women marginalized, and it’s not an accident that those same countries are disproportionately mired in poverty and riven by fundamentalism and chaos.” What a guy. How can we, as women, not care about this?

His latest column in last Sunday’s paper deals with those suffering from obstetric fistulas – 3 to 4 million women in Asia and Africa, often injured in childbirth while teenagers because they gave birth before their pelvises were fully grown. After giving birth, a young woman with obstetric fistulas is “incontinent,” Kristof writes, “steadily trickling urine and sometimes feces through her vagina.” These young women are then usually abandoned by their husbands – “scorned, bewildered, humiliated and desolate, often feeling cursed by God.” And to repair their bodies and their lives? A $300 surgery that takes 20 minutes. Wow.

I’m coming at this three months after an amazing birth of my second child, a birth complete with a doula and a midwife at a local birthing center. It makes me think if I wasn’t running an invitation company, I would love to go back to medical school, learn stuff, and then help women in this way. But – I don’t have a medical degree, can’t do medical school right now, so what I can do is this. We’re running a free invitation envelope printing promotion through Smock. Buy a letterpress invitation set, get free envelope printing on your outer envelopes through December 31, 2009. This saves you about $300 for a quantity of 100 invitations. Sure, you can pocket the money, or use it to buy some nice organic sheets, or shoes, or books, or – you can donate the savings to the Worldwide Fistula Fund (or pick another cause that you care about) and really make a difference in someone’s life. Even if you’re not shopping for invitations – make a difference, forgo that Starbucks coffee for a while, and then make a donation. Read more about what you can do to help those suffering from fistula on Nicholas Kristof’s blog.