Summer “What We’re Reading” Wednesday

Editor’s note: as a regular summer series, each Wednesday we’ll post what one of our contributors is reading these days.

I have a hard time limiting my reading to one book at a time, which makes this kind of post hard to steer. Do I name the thing on my endtable that I’ve been browsing at bedtime since March? The book I read two chapters of before interrupting it to read one of my textbooks for my summer class? Surely not. The Jane Austen novels that I read endlessly, but usually only one paragraph a day — chosen at random from the middle of the book, purely for the pleasure of navigating the word choice and sentence structure? Too much information already, I suspect. I bought a book Friday night while out at a bookstore for my anniversary, but finished it Saturday, so was never reading it on a Wednesday. Clearly a great book, though, so why not cheat?

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Nicholas D. Kristof, Sheryl WuDinn) (amazon link)

This book was hard to put down. As the title suggests, it grapples with the inadequate living conditions and opportunities for women throughout the globe, with a particular focus on Africa, China, India, and Southeast Asia. I’d say there are four things that set this book apart as a great read for me:

  • It’s hopeful. If you expect to find another book bewailing the pitiable lives of women in other parts of the globe, which will leave you feeling helpless and emotionally drained, you will be pleasantly surprised. Kristof and WuDinn do provide the heartbreaking anecdotes you expect from a reporting team on this topic, but, refreshingly, also recount the interventions that often saved these women’s lives. When there are victims, the authors try to wrestle with what could have been done to intervene faster or more effectively.
  • It’s honest. Kristof and WuDinn don’t present the talking points (liberal or conservative) on the topic. They go the more difficult, but ultimately more honest route of trying to show the whole picture. For example, some articles on this topic want to find an easy cause for women’s problems in developing nations: men, Islam, or the West being three of the most popular. The authors show that these are, at best, only partial causes — for example, women in these nations are often supportive of wife beating, female genital cutting, and human trafficking. The solutions the book espouses for these cultural problems are cultural and inculturated solutions: giving these people agency to plan and enact their own change is what works.
  • It’s moral. Too often books and articles like this one focus on economic and social costs and benefits to the exclusion of moral ones. Kristof and WuDinn do describe the cost-effective measures and economic payoffs, but when push comes to shove and lives are at stake — women’s, children’s, men’s — they are willing to say that, for example, thousands of women and children dying in childbirth for lack of simple medical intervention is morally reprehensible, and that we should do something about it.
  • It’s unitive. Kristof and WuDinn note that Western relief and social justice is practiced by both right-leaning religious groups and left-leaning secular groups, but that the two rarely cooperate because of a lack of agreement on other politicized and polarized issues. They rightly argue that there are many interventions that need not fall to disagreements over abortion and contraception on which these groups — not to mention those who don’t fall neatly into either category — should be able to work together. The goal is flourishing of all, men, women, and children. And that seems like a project we should all be able to get behind.


  1. “They rightly argue that there are many interventions that need not fall to disagreements over abortion and contraception on which these groups — not to mention those who don’t fall neatly into either category — should be able to work together.”


    Did you read the St. Louis Archdiocese’s Position Statement on Susan G. Komen for the Cure? Sometimes I am very disappointed in the hierarchy.

  2. Kristoff and WuDun’s book, which I would heartily endorse not just as summer reading, but at any time, comes into that genre of books in the field of social entrepreneurship. Women given the chance to become social entrepreneurs have made outstanding contributions in many countries in the developing world. I introduced sections of the book to the senior class at the High School where I teach, when we were discussing human rights. It proved a great eye-opener for the boys as much as the girls.
    Now I find myself asking what can we learn from the key ideas behind social entrepreneurship that we can use, adapt for promoting growth and development in the Church.

  3. 🙂 Sounds like a wonderful book. It’s good that Kristoff and WuDinn accentuate the human people involved in these stories through their interventions. Oftentimes, when we examine history we think too much about what is objectively in front of us, and ignore the people behind the scenes who make everything happen, and without whom nothing happens. By drawing out the perspective of these women in interventions, we see another piece of being and in response we learn more about ourselves, and possibly our lack of response and love in other situations. To empower human people, we must speak to real human experiences, until we do that, we will get a lot more of what we see in front of us and what Kristoff and WuDinn critique, namely paristanship and politicking getting in the way of serving real people who need real love.

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