Dismantling the patriarchy, one book at a time
Photos courtesy of Eileen Symons May 13, 2021
UD senior studying art history, French and the fine arts expands her worldview through her book collection
Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of articles highlighting the winners of the second annual Seth Trotter Book Collecting Contest, sponsored by the Friends of the University of Delaware Library. UD students can submit their applications for this year’s contest by June 1, 2021.
Senior Eileen Symons isn’t the type of person who only reads a book once. She has read each title in her growing collection of books on gender, identity and sexuality at least twice. She frequently re-reads the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and she has revisited Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice no less than 50 times.
While Symons — a student of art history, French and fine arts — is undoubtedly a voracious reader today, that wasn’t always the case.
Growing up, Symons struggled with learning how to read and write.
“Each word was a hard-won battle,” she said. It was a long process to build her vocabulary as she lagged behind the progress of her friends and peers. “But I was lucky enough that I was read to, at home, and I still enjoyed stories. I understood the pleasure that could come from reading and from books, despite the fact that I wasn’t reading myself.”
When she was finally able to read longer books on her own, she devoured any book she could — the good, the bad, the complex and the overly simplified. She would check out 20 books from her local library at a time. She would pack her suitcase with more books than clothes for a vacation.
In reading everything, she was able to recognize what she most appreciated in books. She found herself gravitating toward strong, complex and fully developed characters who broke away from stereotypes and contrived limitations. “I loved when I discovered characters who felt like friends, who proved stronger than their hardships, who were not defined by a world that saw them as limited,” she said.
Characters and stories that defy stereotypes and limitations are the core of her growing book collection themed around “dismantling the patriarchy.”
“Dismantling the patriarchy is not only reforming what it means to be a woman or defining ‘masculinity,’ but allowing for a complexity of character,” Symons said. “You don’t have to be just one thing. I think when that happens, when you don’t confine people to something, that’s a step in dismantling the patriarchy.”
Symons’ collection consists of more than 80 titles that represent varied genders, ethnicities and identities. Each has their own story and worldview to share.
You’ll find classics, like Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Anne Frank’s The Diary of Anne Frank, alongside contemporary favorites, like Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, John Green’s Paper Towns and Madeline Miller’s Circe. There are comic books, like Marvel’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and DC Comics’ Batgirl Year One, alongside feminist-forward novels and essay collections, like Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist. The collection also includes biographies of figures like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Malala Yousafzai, and the memoir of sexual assault survivor Laurie Halse Anderson.
One area that she particularly focuses on within her collection is young adult literature, a genre that is rapidly growing and showcasing new voices and experiences. “The books I read when I was young shaped me and shaped the way I view the world,” Symons said. “I think it’s fantastic and so important that the YA books that we’re reading now are becoming so diverse, and are exploring difficult themes that weren’t at all addressed even five years ago.”
Whether fiction, non-fiction or poetry, the books in her collection all highlight perspectives and experiences different from Symons’ own. “Books are a great way to get out of your own little bubble and experience someone else’s reality as much as anyone can,” she said.
These diverse characters and perspectives also provide her with the opportunity to spark conversations and share in new experiences with friends and family.
“People who I have known for a long time, I learn things about them I’ve never known when we’re reading or discussing a book together,” Symons said. She could be discussing how author Sarah Rees Brennan swaps stereotypical gender roles to illustrate how problematic they are in the novel In Other Lands with a friend, or listening to her mom recount stories from her childhood and Symons’ childhood after reading Michelle Obama’s Becoming together. In every case, it brings them closer.
With friends and family, Symons can discuss what they’ve learned from these stories and how they can use it to better themselves and the world. “I think we all come out of those conversations for the better,” she said. “We are more open to the fact that we don’t know everything and there is still a lot for us to learn.”
Being able to recommend books to her family and friends is another valuable way Symons uses her collection to connect with others. “I love giving books to friends and family, and saying, ‘Hey, we were having this conversation the other day, and this book really speaks to that. You should check this out,’ ” she said.
In the same way, she enjoys browsing a friend’s bookshelves or having them recommend a title for her. “Sometimes they’ll suggest something and say, ‘I’m not sure if I like [the book,] but I think it would be an important addition to your collection,’” Symons said. “So it’s not just about what I’ll enjoy, but what will have an impact and what will make me see something from a new perspective.”
Reading and curating her evolving collection has helped broaden and change her perspectives in all facets of her life, including her coursework. As part of the University’s 4+1 Master’s Program in Art History for Museum Professionals, she’s been reading a lot of art history textbooks for graduate seminars.
With her interest in lifting up diverse and inclusive voices beyond the “very colonial, imperialist, white, straight, male” background of art history, she said, Symons can better question her own biases, acknowledge the changes in the art world today, and prepare for the changes in representation that are to come.
“I really do believe in the power of books and the ability to learn from the stories others write,” Symons said. “Reading has made me a more open and understanding person… If you let them, books offer us all a chance to engage in new topics of conversation with ourselves.”
Symons’ book collection has transformed into a personal journey she will continue for years to come. With each book, she discovers new stories and perspectives to flesh out her own worldview, and new opportunities to share those experiences with others.
Seth Trotter Book Collecting Contest
Eileen Symons is one of three winners of the Friends of the University of Delaware Library’s 2020 Seth Trotter Book Collecting Contest. The other winners are Edward Benner and Lucia O’Neill. The Friends created the contest to encourage reading and research, the creation of personal libraries, and an appreciation of printed or illustrated works for pleasure and scholarship among UD undergraduate and graduate students. Students can learn more about the 2021 Seth Trotter Book Collecting Contest, including how to submit their applications, here.