Marcie Stokman has always had a passion for literature. She loves looking for books and finding new authors. As a wife and homeschooling mother of seven and grandmother of five, Marcie focused a lot of her attention on children’s literature. She has taught writing and literature for a local homeschool academy and traveled around speaking on the topic.
Later, she transitioned her focus to adults, specifically women, and put together a lecture series called “Well-Read Mom.” But when Marcie left her speaking venues, she often felt sad for the women who attended, because they repeatedly told her they were simply too busy to read.
In this day and age, Marcie said, we are reading less but “scrolling” more online. When there are links to the articles we are reading and we click back and forth, we end up using our brain’s frontal lobe, which is meant for problem-solving and multitasking more than reading. However, when we read a book, which is linear—left to right—a different area of our brain lights up. We think, ponder and reflect, when we read books.
But when we don’t read books, we lose our focus, concentration and ability to think deeply. “And if we lose that, we are robbed of something essential for our humanity,” said Marcie.
At the same time she was meeting women who were too busy to read, Marcie also was having discussions with her daughter and daughter-in-law, who were new moms. They were frustrated that their mom’s group was too focused on the surface things of motherhood, such as the best diapers to buy. They wondered where they could find other moms who wanted to have intellectual conversations and grow deeper in their humanity.
Marcie’s conversations with the busy moms who were not reading coupled with her daughters’ desire for deeper relationships motivated her to “create a real place for women to come together.”
And with that, the Well-Read Mom book club was born.
Starting Small and Growing Fast
In the fall of 2012, Well-Read Mom began in Marcie’s living room. She sent out postcards to women in her small town in Northern Minnesota, inviting them to join her in reading quality literature from Catholic and Western tradition. The very first evening of the book club, 20 women showed up ready to read and discuss.
At the same time, her daughter started a Well-Read Mom group in St. Paul, and another friend started one in St. Cloud, Minn.
Then, in early 2013, Marcie hosted a Well-Read Mom conference, and 80 women attended—more than were in groups. Immediately after the conference, 21 Well-Read Mom groups were established. It continued to grow to 50 and 80 groups.
Now, in fall 2014, just two years after Well-Read Mom began, 210 groups are reading together in 28 states and four countries.
“Something has hit a core,” Marcie said. “Women are realizing that there is more to life, and everything has greater meaning when we relate our life in Christ with our purpose on earth. We live and parent differently when we are open to becoming His.”
Selecting Books and Choosing Themes
With an initial list of 150 books, Marcie was not sure how to begin selecting and organizing the books for a book club atmosphere. In addition, Marcie knew she did not have the educational background in literature that she wanted infused in the Well-Read Mom. Yes, she is a mom who loves books and believes in the importance of reading, but she admits she is not an expert.
Marcie enlisted the help of Dr. Mary Reichardt from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, who has authored and edited numerous books on American fiction and Catholic literature, including the two-volume Encyclopedia of Catholic Literature.
“Dr. Reichardt’s depth of wisdom has been so helpful,” Marcie said. “She helped me pare down the list.”
Marcie also has bounced ideas by other literature professors at UST, because “they are so willing to help and share.” In addition, Marcie’s daughter-in-law Stephanie Stokman assists her with designing the group materials, and various contributors lend their insights into reflections on each of the year’s book selections.
Well-Read Mom groups meet during the school year, from September to May. Each year’s book list includes shorter selections in the fall when life is busy with back-to-school transitions; spiritual gems during Advent and Lent; good and worthy books; and great works of literature. The weightier selections are usually read in the winter months.
“At first, we were going to organize the book selections in chronological order,” she said. “But we quickly realized that it would be too discouraging to read some of the oldest, heaviest books all in a row.”
Then, Marcie read St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Women.” In it, he thanks women for being mothers, wives, daughters and sisters, and he also thanks women for working and saying, “yes,” to consecrated life. It occurred to Marcie that “each year’s book selections could correspond with the various aspects of womanhood that John Paul II highlights in his letter.”
In the first year, the book selections focused on what it means to be a daughter. Books included My Antonia by Willa Cather, Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset and Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux. The second year emphasized the role women play as mother. Well-Read Mom members read The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, to name a few. This current, third year’s book selections were chosen with the theme of “spouse” in mind. The current booklist is available at wellreadmom.com and includes Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry, The Jeweler’s Shop by Karol Wojtyla (St. John Paul II) and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.
St. John Paul II had “such a belief that women, at the gut level, could be changers of society with our feminine genius,” said Marcie. “As women, we need to take our role seriously and use our gifts.”
“[We are not meant] to live on a treadmill,” Marcie said, when asked what she hoped moms would gain from reading the selected books. “I hope that these books will help us live with passion and purpose; to live a greater ‘yes.’”
As Elisabeth Leseur, whose secret diary Well-Read Mom groups are reading this Advent, said, “Every soul that raises itself raises the world.” This is what Well-Read Mom is all about.
From the very beginning, Marcie wanted to ensure that the book selections of the Well-Read Mom would be “formative, follow the moral order and spark imagination, which has not been cultivated in our society.”
When asked about the importance of reading the book selections in a group setting, Marcie responded, “So much good that I do happens through friendship. Women need to be with other women physically. We don’t really know where the conversation will go, but it is safe to talk about the novel, and then doors open to talk about life.”
To think that women in 28 states and four countries are all reading the same books, “we have a place to dialogue about something that is happening now,” Marcie said.
Take for instance The Odyssey by Homer, which was one of the selections from the second year of the mother. Although the most difficult of the 10 books, it was the most well-received book, because “when we read something great and relevant, even if it’s as ancient as The Odyssey, we realize that the human heart endures, it doesn’t change, it longs for beauty and truth.”
In addition to creating a place for dialogue, it also is good to read books in a group for accountability. “There is a positive pressure to get the reading done,” Marcie said. However, the one and only rule within Well-Read Mom is that members should still come to the group, even if they didn’t finish the reading.
“We want to raise the bar without making women feel guilty,” Marcie said.
Making Time to Read
So, how can busy women find time to read?
Marcie says there is a difference between leisure and entertainment. True leisure, including reading quality literature, allows someone to grow as a person and enter into her work with a truer sense of purpose. Entertainment, on the other hand, distracts from reality and is not life giving.
“Some of the best parenting I do is when I model reading on my own,” Marcie said. “Some days I wake up at 4 a.m., just to finish a book. Some days I don’t read, because it doesn’t work. But I never feel guilty about reading.”
Well-Read Mom groups are starting all the time. For more information about joining an existing group or forming a new one, please visit wellreadmom.com. In addition, if you are in New York City or Minneapolis-St. Paul, Well-Read Mom will be hosting events in these cities in January. More information can be found on the web site.
Be sure to check out our Book Notes archive.
Copyright 2014, Sarah Damm