Reading Well to Live Well

An interview with Marcie Stokman, founder of Well-Read Mom.
Hannah Keegan

“December is like a level five Sudoku puzzle.” This is Marcie Stokman – wife, mother of 7, grandmother of 17, and founder of Well-Read Mom, who graciously made time for a conversation with us in the busy Advent season.

Well-Read Mom (WRM) invites and accompanies women in reading great and worthy works of literature in order to encourage friendship, personal growth, and meaningful conversation, with the desire to rediscover what is true, good, and beautiful. WRM began in 2012 when Marcie received a desperate call from her oldest daughter, Beth, who was frustrated with the typical “moms’ group” conversations. Beth asked: “Isn’t there a place for women, after college, for more meaningful conversation?” This question struck Marcie at the core and she began working with Beth and her daughter-in-law, Stephanie, on a reading list to share with their friends, with the hope of “reading more and reading well.” In time, Marcie realized that women truly want to read more but often do not know how to make the time or where to start. However, after the first year, women across Minnesota were encouraged and began inviting others.

The seed of WRM has blossomed into over 1000 groups all over the country and even abroad. Every group follows the WRM Reading Companion which includes the book selection for each month as well as an author bio, a reflection on the book, and guided reading questions. Reading approximately ten books together throughout the year since 2012, WRM has proposed over 120 beautiful books to women, spanning many genres:
Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot, My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset, The Reed of God by Caryll Houselander, and East of Eden by John Steinbeck, to name just a few.

At the National Assembly in October, Davide Prosperi asked Marcie to share her experience of WRM as an example of “inculturation,” a fruit of the charism of CL in American culture. Here we ask Marcie about the work of WRM and how the work has grown and changed her in the last twelve years.


What is the value of a reading group?

There was recently an article in the Wall Street Journal titled “No, I Don’t Want to Join Your Book Club.” They were supporting the idea that instead of reading something in common, people could come together and bring their own book and read silently. One of the reasons is so that people can choose what they want and don't have someone telling them what to read. WRM encourages the opposite experience. Our culture says, “I find myself by myself. I don't need anyone else.” But the Christian proposal is that we find ourselves in relationship, in communion. However, in this postmodern era of our thinking, we hop in and out of relationships but remain an isolated bubble. We think that we create ourselves, but the whole purpose of great art and literature is to experience the universal that resonates with each human heart. This is an experience that can unify us as persons.

How does WRM unify?

We use criteria to curate a list of classics and worthy selections. Reading good books encourages us to dive deeper into the plots of our own lives and in my experience, I have seen great writers become dear friends. I find myself viewing reality from their eyes. We read authors who, as Camus describes, understand humanity in a way that, “translate the suffering and happiness of everyone in the language of the people, [so that] then they would be understood by all. As a reward for their absolute loyalty to reality, artists would succeed in creating global communication between people” (Camus, Create Dangerously, in Committed Writings). He puts it clearly. Our society is so individualistic, that we jump in and out of relationships, and it becomes hard to hold things together. We live individualism but we are made for communion. So, in WRM we want to discover this “global community” Camus describes – and that can begin with something as simple as following a proposed book list that has been thoughtfully selected. But I would say WRM is more than a carefully curated list. Our proposal is that women stay together in the reading. Accompanying one another fosters a sense of belonging and accountability. As we read we compare the story with our life, and this is what we risk sharing when we meet at our monthly meetings.

You have a team of people who work with you to decide the books. Does everyone always like each book that makes it to the final list?

No! I didn't particularly like Dracula but I understood that there were reasons why we chose Dracula, and I learned something from reading it. So, you see, the books we choose are not based on personal preference. In that sense, the work of accepting or following a proposal is the same for me as it is for any of the moms who read with us throughout the year. And actually, what we have seen is women experience a growth in their individual personality through the experience of communion that comes from following. The WSJ article was sad because in it, the author is saying that ultimately you are on your own and that it is better to live this way, but it’s not so.

How did you begin to understand these things in your own life?

Before WRM started, I was in graduate school at the Augustine Institute. I had older kids and I thought a degree in Biblical Studies would be a logical help to sharing the faith. But I realized I wasn’t good at Biblical exegesis! I wanted to give my whole life to God, and that seemed a way to do it. I had a change in my understanding when a friend asked me what I really desired. I told her, “I love literature, it has always helped me to live better. But what does that have to do with Christ? My friend just said, “You've got to follow that desire.” After that conversation, I left the graduate program. And now, looking back, I see that somehow, through the charism, I've been given permission to take the desires of my heart seriously and recognize that they do have something to do with Christ.

What do you mean that you’ve been “given permission”?

Before I met CL, I did not see the connection between literature and growing in my faith. I would feel guilty for reading a novel instead of the Bible. Now I read Scripture daily but I don’t feel guilty for reading literature as well and this understanding came from the grace of the charism.

WRM began 12 years ago. Can you tell us what you have discovered in these 12 years?

When Beth called to share her loneliness, her cry echoed my own because I, too, experienced a lot of loneliness as a new mom in a new city. She was asking for a place of meaningful connection, and I thought, “Let's read books together.” Then I started going around my house pulling books and making a pile in my living room, wondering how to start. Around that same time I read John Paul II’s Letter to Women, where he thanks women who are mothers, daughters, contemplatives, and workers. These themes (daughter, mother, sister, etc.) became a good way to organize our lists each year.

What else did you learn from John Paul II’s Letter to Women?

In that letter, he said women will play a part in solving the serious problems of the future, and the top problem he lists is leisure time! This blew my mind. The second problem he lists is “quality of life.” But leisure time must have something to do with our humanity – how we live. At first, I equated leisure with entertainment, not realizing that there is a work of leisure. Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture was life-changing in this respect because Pieper is calling leisure the basis of culture, not just entertainment!

Where in your life do you see leisure-building culture?

We feel guilty living leisure. Especially moms, I think. You asked me what I've seen in 12 years. I see that this is God's work. It's so exciting and beautiful to be part of something bigger than myself that has the potential to impact the culture. These WRM groups all over the country are little sprouts, little seeds that are causing a ripple effect of more people reading. The work of the monks was to copy things so that we could pass them on and read them, and now there is a new stage of life where all these works are available, but we must do the work of reading them to benefit from them. The problem is partaking in our tradition and modeling this partaking for our children and families. What a simple but profound thing to have books in our home! My son John came home from college, got up in the middle of the night to get some cereal, and grabbed Augustine's Confessions off the shelf. The next morning, I came down and found the cereal bowl, of course, in the living room. I was getting mad, but then I saw Augustine's Confessions… He came down later that morning and said, “Mom, this book is really pretty interesting. Have you read it?”

WRM is explicitly Christian in its proposal, but it is also very ecumenical, including many individuals that are not Catholic or Christian. What have you seen in these women and in the capacity of WRM to begin a dialogue between people?

This fall, my daughter Beth was in the grocery store the day of her WRM meeting. She ran into a woman she used to live by and tells her that she is meeting with some friends who just read Dracula together. Surprisingly, the woman says, “I just finished Dracula!” The woman is an atheist. Beth invites her, and she comes. This atheist woman is really perplexed by the questions in our Reading Companion about evil and the relevance of ‘hosts’ in Dracula as a guard against evil. A conversation begins about these ‘hosts’ and why they are so special to us. They discuss the Eucharist and this woman asks if they really believe in it. “Yes!” they say. Who knows what will come from that, but it made me think how Pope Francis invites us to go to the peripheries. It is remarkable to me that this can look as simple as inviting someone into your home, having a glass of wine or a cup of tea, and using the medium of literature to open a non threatening dialogue.

What does it mean to “inculturate” an experience of faith? Do you see WRM as an example of this work of inculturation?

To build culture, we need a space for dialogue and a shared experience to talk about. This happens when we all read the same book. Even when you don’t know the women in the group, reading the same book prepares the soil for dialogue, conversation, to take root. Because we have surrendered to the story our hearts are open and curious to hear from others. We see with our women now, they are more engaged with what their children are reading at school and at home and desiring to offer them the best.

Reading together also creates a demand for these books ensuring that these books will continue to be available in the market. There is a cultural impact when certain books are being read and recommended.

The lens through which you read them matters – we are trying to read and interpret them through the lens of who we are as Catholic women. It is easy to live blindly in the culture, letting it change you without really understanding what is really going on. But, in order to impact the culture, we have to build. We don't have to fight and argue and shout at each other, we have to build by living a life of communion.

What does it mean to build?

For me it means following my own need for friendship and living life. The most beautiful life with others that I have found is the Church, and I find that even women who are not Catholic are attracted to the experience of WRM. It is an experience where you can invite others. So many people have come to the Lord – have entered the Church, actually – by starting to go to a WRM group. I want to build something that is true out of a life that invites others in. WRM is not just an invitation to be together. It is an invitation to encounter the truth, to encounter something that communicates the truth through beauty. This is why we have a booklist and method that is a thought-out proposal, in hopes that it can become a correction and a path for each woman.

What makes you desire to continue this work?

I love the Church, and I love Jesus, but growing up there were a lot of things I didn’t understand about Catholicism. I could cry now, thinking how little I understood. By reading these great books, I discover things for myself and then am able to pass on to my daughters the riches of our tradition. I want Beth to read Reed of God. I want Margaret and Emma to read Dorothy Day and Dante. I want to grow and live the truth of my life, and I want this for all of my children and grandchildren. I need to stay on this road – to partake in the feast.