Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Marriage, A History (Stephanie Coontz)

Marriage, A History, by Stephanie Coontz caught my eye on the New Book Rack at the library because of the title and the photograph on the cover. If I had actually opened the book (which is near Harry Potter--size in bulk) and seen the small font size and tight leading (which for nonpublishing geeks is the vertical space between the rows of text), I probably would have put it back on the shelf (but I’m glad I didn’t).

Near the beginning of the book, Coontz asserts that the reason many people get married today (that being for love) would have been thought absurd throughout most of history. Marriage was too important politically and economically to base it on something so irrational as love. She also offers many more reasonable alternatives to the myth that “marriage was invented for the protection of women.” (In other words, think cave men protection wives and children from wooly mammoths.) This was especially popular in the 1950s to the 1970s “because it closely resembled the male breadwinner/female homemaker family to which they were accustomed.”

I also found it interesting that the beginnings of dating had the women in control of the courtship. In the early 1900s, a young woman could “call” on a man to come to her home for some chaperoned conversation. (It was truly improper for him to suggest to be invited.) However, when official dating arrived, it took place in public, and since things in public cost money (and women had a “second-class economic status”), the man paid and hence became the one in charge.

Coontz isn’t taking the word “history” lightly. She means it, and she starts way back with the early humans and continues until today. I have to admit that it got a little too historical and academic for me after Chapter 4, and after carrying it in my backpack for a couple of days, I quickly realized that the weight of the book was far more than the progress I was making in it every day, so I left it at home and instead carried my much lighter Sudoku book on my commute, which only aggravated my current Sudoku addiction.

Luckily I picked up the book again and skipped ahead to Chapter 12 at the turn of the 20th century. (For those interested in the skipped chapters, they covered early Christians to the Victorians.) As this book is full of information, I’d say it’s probably not the best book to read cover to cover but instead to pick what interests you most and start there.

Coontz points out that people all throughout history people have believed marriage to be in crisis (and 2004 was not the first year that same-sex marriage was discussed). She gives detailed information and questioning behind the statistics and presents a lot of the information in a worldwide context. It’s a fascinating book on an equally fascinating topic.

Update: Read something great? Interesting in a book but don’t have time to check it out yourself? Or just not sure you’d like it? There is a new link on the sidebar where you can post book recommendations. Enjoy!

Next book up: The Nudist on the Late Shift by Po Bronson

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