Catholic Herald staff
The wealth and humanity of literature commingle with the strength and support of friendship in Well-Read Mom, a book club for Catholic women who read the classics.
Formed in 2012 in the Diocese of Duluth, the 200-plus chapter organization began as a single meeting in Marcie Stokman’s living room in Crosby, Minnesota.
A wife, mother of seven and grandmother, Stokman, a member of St. Joseph Parish, Crosby, homeschooled her children and taught literature for a homeschool academy; later, when she gave a series of talks titled “The Well-Read Mom” to women’s groups, listeners often said they wanted to read more, but they didn’t have time.
It struck a chord with Stokman, who knew from personal experience the burnout women suffer when they don’t make time to care for their own hearts and minds.
Having spent more than 20 years at home educating her children, Stokman also recognized being a stay-at-home mom can be “a hazard to your intellect,” and she is concerned about the way phones, computers and tablets are gobbling up everyone’s time with little recompense.
“I think about technology a lot, and the way it’s changing us, and that’s why I think this need is even greater than it used to be,” Stokman said in a Nov. 4 phone interview. “We’re living isolated.”
At the time, Stokman’s daughter, Beth Nelson, and daughter-in-law, Stephanie Stokman, were new mothers seeking meaningful connections with other women, and Stokman has always found she relies on others for accountability in “any worthwhile pursuit.”
“I’m just wired that way,” she said. “To read quality books … I just need to be by other women.”
All of these factors culminated in the founding of Well-Read Mom, a book club designed to nourish the minds and souls of women of all faiths, whether single, married, with or without children.
“This is just to encourage and support women, in their own self-care, in their own education, to keep learning and growing,” she explained.
Stokman had been a member of a classics-reading book club for years, and she compiled a list of 150 potential books for the new group to read. She was looking for works that would spark imagination and introspection – great books, the best in the Western and Catholic literary tradition.
Although Stokman has a master’s degree, her academic background is not in literature. Three of her children attended the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, so she approached Dr. Mary Reichardt, an author/editor and St. Thomas professor, for help slimming down the list.
After reading St. John Paul II’s 1995 “Letter to Women,” Stokman elected to arrange the books topically each year, based on the various roles women play – daughter, mother, spouse, etc.
“This year, we’re doing Year of the Worker, so we’re looking at women and work – the work of women, and we’re looking at that from various angles,” she said. “A woman’s work encompasses more … what you do in the home with your family … is what builds culture.”
The topic includes career work, but also work “in a broader context,” she added:
“Sort of the hidden work of women that is often invisible in some ways, but it’s so important for building. It’s kind of like how the root of the plant sustains.
“A woman is kind of like that,” she continued, “a woman who is living out her maternal, God-given gift.”
The 2015 reading list features novels and short stories by Willa Cather, Mary Shelley, Anton Chekhov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Evelyn Waugh, Sigrid Undset and others.
Weightier books are tackled in winter months; members enjoy quicker reads in the fall and spiritual works – this year, the Rule of St. Benedict – during Advent and/or Lent. Clubs take off July and August.
Groups typically meet in churches, coffee shops or homes one evening a month. Over cups of coffee or pots of tea, they listen to audio introductions for each work and reflect on the month’s selection.
Readers can join the organization, which costs about $35 for early registration or $40 later in the year and includes a book for notes, another with reflections on each reading and auxiliary materials.
Members who want to build a library can purchase recommended editions through the website; otherwise, anyone can just borrow library books and participate for free.
Stokman wants all women to be successful in their desire to read more, so there’s only one rule: “If you don’t get the book read, don’t apologize. Just come anyway, and soak in the discussion. I feel strongly that this is one thing you can’t fail at.”
In just a few years, Well-Read Mom has grown from a single meeting to a full-blown organization with about 1,000 registered members and more than 200 chapters in nearly every U.S. state and five countries.
“How similar we are, women from others countries even, we do the same things – put our babies down for naps in their nursery gliders & rockers and try to get together,” Stokman said.
So far, Wisconsin has eight chapters with 49 registered members; chapters are currently forming at St. Patrick, Hudson, and in the Duluth/Superior area.
The club also hosts a conference in January at the University of St. Thomas.
Well-Read Mom has a website, www.wellreadmom.com, and a basic Facebook page, but Stokman doesn’t want to shift the balance of interaction online.
“Our goal with social media is to get women to meet together in the flesh – face to face,” she explained. “We use it sparingly to get women to get together in their communities.”
Not long ago, she was speaking with a woman who suggested they start a blog. When Stokman said she didn’t want too much of the focus on the internet, “this woman started to cry.” She told Stokman, “‘I am absolutely sucked in online.’”
Stokman wondered why she was crying, “and then you realize, there really is something about being in the place where you are, and getting to know the women where you are in the flesh.”
“I just got another letter yesterday. I get these letters from women that just kind of blow me away,” she added. “I’m so surprised that I’m doing this.”
Wisdom and empathy
“Why am I leading this” Stokman sometimes wonders, “because I’m really not good at literature. I’m not good at analyzing …. but I do recognize I’m changed by literature. It’s really helped me in my understanding as a Christian as well. Reading these kinds of books, you get a different moral vision than you get from popular culture.”
She has derived much wisdom from reading over the years. Literature, she said, helps her “see through a different lens, and these books nourish that lens.”
Reading “Kristin Lavransdatter,” by Sigrid Undset, made her realize her husband was left out of family life, and she needed to invite him in.
“It changed my life,” she said. “It changed our family life – in a good way.”
She had a similar experience while reading “Shadows on the Rock,” by Willa Cather, in September.
“The mother is dying, and she wants to pass on to her daughter some things that are important to her, and how she can continue to carry out the French traditions at home,” she added.
Suddenly, Stokman realized she was neglecting to pass on some things – the family meal had been languishing.
“Eating together is one of those things that helps families connect at the end of the day,” Stokman observed. “Reading that book helped me get serious again about eating family meals. Because of reading that, I became more intentional again.”
Literature also helps us gauge our personal growth, Stokman continued. When her group was discussing “Ida Elisabeth,” by Sigrid Undset, the October pick, “one woman said, ‘Ten years ago, if I’d read this, I would be so angry at this woman and how she accepted her husband back into her family.’”
“She just saw it in another light,” Stokman added, “what marriage is about, and how having children changes you forever.”
Literature builds empathy, she said, but it also creates opportunity for dialogue, and “before you know it, friendships happen. It’s a great gift.”
Inspiration for Well-Read Mom, too, has been a gift, although managing the fast-growing club has at times been overwhelming for Stokman, who also relies on her daughter and daughter-in-law for help.
“There’s been definite growing pains,” she said. “We’re just kind of trying to follow it ourselves.”
She credits the Holy Spirit with their success.
“I’m part of this,” she has realized, “but I’m not moving this boat. I’m along for the ride. It’s something that he’s doing.”
For more information
Visit www.wellreadmom.com or the organization’s Facebook page to learn more about Well-Read Mom.
To join the St. Patrick, Hudson, chapter of Well-Read Mom, email Deb Mayer, .
Email if you are interested in helping to launch
a Duluth/Superior chapter.