A Well-Read Woman: The Life, Loves and Lega­cy of Ruth Rappaport

  • Review
By – July 15, 2019

What would cause a fif­teen-year-old girl trav­el­ing with her moth­er to jump off a mov­ing train and refuse to return to the coun­try of her birth? In Ruth Rappaport’s case, it was instinct — a pure and pro­found vision of a real­i­ty that thou­sands of oth­ers were unable to grasp. The year was 1938, and the train was mov­ing toward Ger­many. Over the next few years, under Nazi rule, mil­lions of Jews would per­ish. Ulti­mate­ly, her moth­er would be among them and Rap­pa­port would not.

A Well-Read Woman tells the true sto­ry of per­son­al tur­moil, trau­ma and tri­umph that took place over the near­ly nine decades of Rappaport’s life. Begin­ning in Leipzig, where she was born, and end­ing in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. in 2010, four years before her death at age eighty-sev­en, the book takes us on Rappaport’s jour­ney from Europe to the U.S., Israel, Japan, and Viet­nam and through her sev­er­al suc­cess­ful careers, most notably as a jour­nal­ist and then a librar­i­an. Read­ing and books played a cen­tral role in Rappaport’s life, often pulling her out of despair, some­times bring­ing her deep insight, always giv­ing her solace and a place to belong. No mat­ter what went wrong, no mat­ter what changed around her, books were a wel­come constant.

With skill and sen­si­tiv­i­ty, Kate Stew­art weaves this biog­ra­phy togeth­er with her own quest for infor­ma­tion and insight into her sub­ject. The book delves with respect and care into the capa­cious jour­nals, let­ters, diaries, arti­cles and a lengthy oral his­to­ry left behind after Rappaport’s death. It reveals small facts and large insights into her mind and heart through a deep study of the rich and detailed paper trail.

Rap­pa­port spent most of her lat­er pro­fes­sion­al career as a librar­i­an at the Library of Con­gress in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.. Stew­art is a third-gen­er­a­tion librar­i­an with a deep ven­er­a­tion for her col­leagues and her cho­sen field, help­ing her under­stand the work pres­sures that frus­trat­ed Rap­pa­port but also her moti­va­tion to bring her beloved world of books to the pub­lic. While the book idol­izes Rap­pa­port, it also glo­ri­fies the librar­i­an profession.

Stew­art tells us that Rap­pa­port saw being a librar­i­an as akin to being an agent of change. She was inspired to go to library school by the sear­ing mem­o­ry of the book burn­ings she wit­nessed first­hand in Ger­many in 1933, at the age of ten. She also recalled read­ing banned books and clan­des­tine­ly shar­ing them with friends, defy­ing the Nazis and build­ing a sense of self that would enable her to sur­vive the polit­i­cal upheaval that took away her home, her coun­try, and her family.

We see how Rap­pa­port was dri­ven by a Jew­ish sen­si­bil­i­ty through­out her life, with a strong Zion­ist fac­tor always at play, refer­ring to her work in the library field as her own per­son­al form of tikkun olam. Judaism is nev­er too far buried in the nar­ra­tive — we are always aware of it under the surface.

Over­all, A Well-Read Woman is live­ly and chat­ty, enter­tain­ing, edu­ca­tion­al and well-researched, shed­ding light on the life of a lit­tle-known booklover who want­ed to illu­mi­nate oth­er people’s lives by mak­ing books acces­si­ble to them.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

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