I completely judged this book by its title and cover. In a good way. Who could resist the title A Well-Read Woman and the picture of this sassy, knowing woman on the cover? Not me.
Ruth Rappaport lived through and participated in many of the major events and movements of the twentieth century. She served as a librarian in a war zone and at the Library of Congress. I proposed this biography to my IRL book club, which is composed primarily of librarians, and can’t wait for our discussion later this month.
Author Kate Stewart is a third generation librarian. This is her first book and I think she served her subject well by writing about Rappaport in a rather understated way. Stewart, for the most part, lets Rappaport’s actions and missions speak for themselves. Had I written this biography it would have been filled with the literary equivalents of OMGs!
Born in Leipzig
Rappaport was born in Leipzig, Germany in 1923 and witnessed the rise of Nazism. She escaped to Switzerland and immigrated to the U.S. alone as a teenager where she saw the rise of McCarthyism while finishing school and participating in Zionist organizations in Seattle. She also lived in Israel while the country was being formed, helped establish military libraries in Vietnam, and, when she was ready to “settle down,” secured a position at the Library of Congress in 1971 where she worked as a cataloger for the rest of her professional life. One of her first assignments there was handling the mysterious erotica collection that includes materials confiscated by the FBI. Rappaport died in 2010.
That Rappaport was able to keep moving forward when her entire world, both the personal and the public, was being destroyed is a testament to her strength and perseverance. She lived with an aunt and uncle in the U.S., attended school, and learned how to socialize as an American teenager while her parents were back in Germany facing an unknown future. Rappaport no doubt went through periods of depressions. One of the hardest symptoms of depression that can hit a reader is not being able to read. She wrote in her diary on March 4, 1940, “Even when I read I sometimes read the words on the page, but not their sense.”
Rappaport didn’t always know she wanted to be a librarian. It is a profession that she grew into organically. After earning her library degree from Berkeley, she accepted a position as a military librarian at Naha Air Base in Okinawa, Japan in 1959. In 1962 she jumped at the chance to establish a library for the Navy in Saigon. Her mission wasn’t just establishing a library as a place, but getting as much reading material out to the men in the field as well (this included many, many copies of Playboy magazine). She served in Vietnam for almost eight years, until 1970, doing work she knew was important while experiencing bombs, heartache, and sexual harassment.
As Stewart’s subtitle promises, she details Rappaport’s loves as well. However, don’t expect any romantic glow. Rappaport didn’t seem to find much comfort in her love relationships. I was struck by this earlier diary entry from when Ruth was becoming sexually active and learning to navigate desire:
“During all these happenings, I think I also found part of the clue why I loved Jim & Vik. They are both men– all others are males–no matter how much they want a woman, they will only try up to a certain point. When [men] see [a] no go without force they are man enough not to use the cheap advantage of strength, & not to get mad and have hurt pride and never see her again.”Ruth Rappaport, Diary entry, 1948
A Thinking Woman
Librarians will enjoy this biography, not just for the pleasure of reading about one of their own, but also for the library history that Stewart covers. The impact of McCarthyism, the role of military libraries in Vietnam, and the racism at the Library of Congress are a few of the issues for which Stewart provides context for Rappaport’s life and work. It’s also a great read for general biography readers and those interested in the lives of 20th century women. Rappaport was often criticised for being prickly and living by her own rules. In other words, she didn’t conform to the gender stereotypes of her time (or ours).
Fun fact: Kate Stewart is the cousin of Anne Boyd Rioux, author of Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, one of my favorite reads of last year.
- Title: A Well-Read Woman: The Life, Loves, and Legacy of Ruth Rappaport
- Author: Kate Stewart
- Publisher: Little A, May 1, 2019
- Source: Purchased a hard copy.
- Bottom line: An exciting, understated biography of a woman, librarian, and survivor who was deeply involved with some of the major events and movements of the 20th century.