Dolores Curran rummages through her awn and her friends' libraries and picks good reads for every stage of marriage.
Some funny things happened on the way to this article. When the editors of U.S. Catholic invited me to do a piece on books every couple should read, I grabbed it as any worthwhile bookaholic would, especially one steeped in marriage and family well-being. The editors' invitation was intriguing in that it went beyond a call for marriage manuals: "We're looking for books that help couples understand what marriage is all about or offer them insight and encouragement. They don't have to be books on marriage or even nonfiction. You may simply recommend novels that you would consider beneficial to couples because of the relationship of the characters or the plot developments. You can recommend books that you found personally rewarding or books others say helped their marriages in one way or another."
Citing these words, I sent out calls to respected colleagues and friends who consider reading an essential part of life. Their responses validated the editors' intuition that we may learn as much about marriage through vicarious reading as through manuals, an activity derided by Henry James in his couplet on excessive marital introspection:
Their relationship consisted
in discussing if it existed.
James lived in a time when relationship-building was demeaned by those in church and society who preferred strict gender roles to couple relationships. Duty came before individual needs or satisfying relationships, and those who demanded more out of marriage than providing and nurturing were considered suspiciously selfish.
This British legacy crossed the ocean and endured into the 1970s in America. In speaking of the importance of communication in marriage, for example, marriage specialist David R. Mace notes that before 1970, we had little understanding of the communication process as it affected family relationships. He writes, "I once made a survey of what I considered to be the 26 best books on marriage published between 1930 and 1970, in order to find out how they treated the subject (of communication). Most of them scarcely mentioned it at all. Of those that did, only a few had any real perception of its importance."
A quick glance at the list chosen by my respondents indicates a tremendous shift in just one generation. These recommended books emphasize self-understanding, gender differences, soul-tending, individuation, communication, boundaries, and relational nurturing over the bread-winning, bread-making roles of the past.
The works recommended by my respondents covered the gamut of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, spirituality, photo books, movies, plays, newsletters, songs, and even comic strips like For Better or For Worse, Baby Blues, Sally Forth, Crankshaft, Funky Winkerbean, and Rose Is Rose. "Couples could do worse than read these daily," one husband told me. "My wife and I see ourselves and our silly conflicts exposed in other characters in familiar situations so it's safe to laugh and make a mental note to stop doing something that bugs the other."
The first clue I had that this assignment wasn't as simple as it seemed came from my friend Robert, who frequently shares good books with me. "I'm sorry," he said. "I went through my entire library and came up with nothing that gave me insights into marriage. This really shakes me. What does it say about me?"
It says that he's a fairly normal husband in our reading culture. I discovered that the men I queried tended to mention impersonal or sociological books like Stephanie Coontz's The Way We Never Were (Basic Books, 1993), Ken Dychtwald's Age Wave (Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1990), and Arlie Hochschild's The Time Bind (Owl Books, 1998), while women veered toward self-introspection books like The Dance of Anger (HarperCollins, 1989) by Harriet Goldhor Lerner, Women's Reality (Harper San Francisco, 1992) by Anne Wilson Schaef, and Gift from the Sea (Vintage Books, 1991) by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. …