Saturday, March 30, 2013

My Attempt to Join the Violent Reading Society

I loved Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy books when I was little, and the last time I reread them, I realized that they weren't just great stories. They're great sources for finding new books. I found one of my favorite books of 2012, The Beloved Vagabond, thanks to Betsy's recommendation in Betsy and the Great World. The best book in the Betsy-Tacy series for recommendations, though, is the last one, Betsy's Wedding. That's the one in which Betsy marries Joe, and the two of them begin their lives together as struggling writers, just as real-life Maud and her husband Delos Lovelace did. It's fascinating to read this book because it gives you an idea of what it might be like to be a young literary couple in 1914 Minneapolis, and it was even more fascinating for me to see what that couple would have been reading.

Betsy and Joe get engaged in this illustration by Vera Neville.

Betsy and Joe are friends with other young Minnesota writers, and they all get together regularly to share what they have been reading and writing. They call their group "The Violent Reading Society," parodying a "sedate and ladylike" book club in Minneapolis called "The Violet Reading Society." At club meetings, everyone has to bring a book to recommend to the others. They read their selections out loud and then argue about them -- sometimes loudly and vehemently, which is why they are the Violent Reading Society -- all while drinking tons of coffee. Here's how one of their meetings starts:

" 'First member to get both hands up reads first!' boomed President Jimmy Cliff.

Up and down the firelit living room, books, notebooks, and pencils clattered to the flood as members hastened to obey the unexpected order for two hands. One plump, dimpled pair rose with suspicious ease and the President nodded at the plump, dimpled owner.

'You win, Patty. No doubt because I warned you. However, this club is all for cheating, so you may read. And how nice that you have brought one of my favorite books!'

Tib's bewildered voice came through the hubbub of protest. 'But I never saw a club run like this! Don't you have any rules of order?'

'Miss Muller,' answered the President, 'this club is very anti rules of order.' "

Maud and Delos Lovelace in real life.

So I decided that if I couldn't join the Violent Reading Society, I would at least take a look at their reading list. What did fun-loving young writers in 1914 Minnesota read? Apparently, the Violent Reading Society likes some of the same kinds of books I do: comic writing, adventure stories, literary fairy tales, mysteries, coming-of-age stories. They read some depressing books too, but they tend toward the light-hearted in literature. (Later in the book, they almost kick Tib's awful boyfriend out of the club for insisting that everyone read serious fiction only, such as Theodore Dreiser and George Bernard Shaw.) These are the books and authors that are mentioned in Betsy's Wedding:

Messer Marco Polo, Donn Byrne
Sentimental Tommy, J.M. Barrie
Penrod, Booth Tarkington
The Song of the Lark, Willa Cather
Speaking of Operations, Irvin S. Cobb
Bird and Bough, John Burroughs
Spoon River Anthology, Edgar Lee Masters
archy and mehitabel, Don Marquis
Leonard Merrick
G.K. Chesterton
Sherwood Anderson
Stephen Leacock
Charles Dickens
Jack London

Some of these are authors and books I know very well (especially Charles Dickens and Jack London), but most of them were new to me. I decided to begin with Messer Marco Polo, which I'd never heard of before, and read my way through the list. I'll write about Messer Marco Polo  in my next post, but for now I will just say that I loved it. The Violent Reading Society turns out to have been well worth joining.


  1. I've wanted to read The Beloved Vagabond for years - and you've just reminded me I can get a copy through Gutenberg! But I've never thought about reading along with the Violent Reading Society before. I'm looking forward to hearing more about their book choices. Have you ever read any of her other books? I haven't been able to find them.

    1. I've been wanting to read her other books, but I haven't done it yet. Her first three novels were reprinted a few years ago. I especially want to read her first one, The Black Angels, which is about a family of traveling performers. I wonder if they are anything like the Beloved Vagabond!

  2. Fantastic! I loved the Betsy-Tacy books, but it never occurred to me to investigate what Betsy read.

    1. Thanks! They are wonderful books, aren't they? When I reread them as an adult I realized that I missed a lot as a child, especially in the later books.

  3. I've not heard of this series, but it sounds fabulous. And what a rabbit-hole we'd all go down if we started reading books mentioned in other books... I can totally see the attraction! Good luck, and have a wonderful Easter.

    1. Thanks, Vicki! I hope that your Easter was wonderful too. I have fallen far down that rabbit-hole, and I have no regrets!

  4. I've never heard of William J. Locke before, and now am delighted to have been made the introduction! Will definitely check out The Beloved Vagabond as well as his other works (I've actually found some of his works at The Internet Archive : and they look very promising. Thanks!
    I've also recently been reading G.K. Chesterton's collection of essays and find them to be very enjoyable too.

  5. Lovely reading list. I am a big fan of Willa Cather but have not read The Song of the Lark yet. Must get cracking.

  6. Thanks for this as I hadn't even heard of Maud before. I've read a lot of books on the strength of them being mentioned in books I've been reading and they've never been a disappointment. I recommend Barrie's Sentimental Tommy.

  7. Please don't stop blogging. I just found your site!