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Well-Read Mom: Changing women’s lives through great books

Marcie Stokman, founder of Well Read Mom

Courtesy of Well Read Mom | John Touhey | Aleteia

Marcie Stokman, founder of Well Read Mom

John Touhey - published on 04/15/24

When Marcie Stokman and her daughter decided to read great books together, they had no idea they were starting a movement that would sweep the country.

Fourteen years ago, Marcie Stokman was invited to give a talk to a local women’s group near her home in northern Minnesota. She was free to choose the topic. Marcie had always loved books, especially literary classics, though by her own admission as “life got busier and busier, and I got married and had a few kids” she had somehow let serious reading fall by the wayside.

Briefly there had been a book club “that kind of fell apart as people moved.” At least it had brought literature back into her life, however. “Even if I sometimes didn’t get though everything or there were sections I didn’t understand, something about these books was helping me,” Marcie says.

In a moment of inspiration, Marcie decided that her upcoming talk would be “about the importance of reading literature. And since I was coming out of this place of realizing I had moved away from that myself, it was kind of a plea.” She decided to title her talk “Well-Read Mom.”

A place for the real questions of life

The subject proved popular and Marcie was invited to speak to more women’s groups. Still, something about the experience left her dissatisfied. “Not one woman in these groups was reading quality literature for its own sake,” Marcie says. “I was driving home sad because, honestly, these talks were just making women feel bad and that wasn’t my intention.”

Marcie can still vividly recall the day that her daughter Beth, then a new mom, called to voice the frustration she experienced when meeting with other young moms. “Everything was about their kids and what kind of binky to buy,” Marcie recalls Beth telling her. “I really heard a cry in her heart. She asked me: ‘Isn’t there a place where women get together and talk about the real questions of life, about our humanity?’”

Something clicked for Marcie in that moment. “Why don’t we read good books together?” she proposed to her daughter. They would give it five years. Since they lived in different parts of Minnesota, they would have to organize their own reading groups, but Marcie promised to record an introduction for each of the quality books they would tackle.

A page from this year's Well Read Mom reading guide
A page from this year’s Well-Read Mom reading guide

“What do I really want?”

Beth liked the idea. A list of books was prepared, including classics by Sigrid Undset and Dorothy Day. Beautiful invitations were created. When Marcie went to the post office, she remembers putting her hand in a blue mailbox with a bunch of her postcard invitations and suddenly freezing. “I can’t let these postcards go,” she remembers, “because now I’m inviting 22 friends to my house to listen to a book introduction that I’ve recorded as if I’m some kind of expert. In that instant, I was really gripped by fear.”

It forced her to ask herself what she really wanted from the venture. As Marcie tells it:

I said to myself, I want friends. I want to live. Women aren’t reading these books, and they’re actually written for normal people like me, not for people in the ivory tower of academia. These books aren’t written to stay on library shelves and never be checked out. They are classics for a reason. They help us live. And with that, I dropped the postcards in.

There were 22 invitations. When the day arrived, all 22 women she had invited showed up at Marcie’s house. Well-Read Mom was off and running.

Lots of moms, lots of books

Marcie’s five-year plan has since been extended indefinitely and taken on a scope she never expected. There are now close to 10,000 women who participate in more than 1,000 Well Read Mom groups across the US and beyond. Many of the books they read are literary masterworks or Catholic classics, while others are more contemporary by authors such as Wendell Berry and Annie Dillard; each work is carefully chosen to help women better understand their humanity and the deepest questions of their hearts.

Women join in small monthly gatherings to discuss a book that Marcie and her small team of advisors have chosen. Meetings begin with a short audio introduction that Marcie still prepares for each book. A discussion ensues. Questions are raised and experiences shared as the women try to understand how that particular author speaks to their lives.

As part of their yearly Well-Read Mom membership, each woman also receives a reading companion with helpful articles and reflections about the chosen books, author Q&As, possible discussion questions, and ideas about how to incorporate serious reading into one’s life.

“We need to be accompanied”

This friendly guidance and an atmosphere of encouragement are what set Well-Read Mom apart from so many other book clubs. Anyone can come up with a list of great books to read on their own, of course, but in Marcie’s experience most of us need accountability to persevere. “Usually, left on my own, I won’t do it. I’ll say I don’t have time to read this book. But if I have friends involved, I’m amazingly faithful. Then I start to see it’s good for my life.”

“I really think we need to be accompanied to embrace the best things in life,” Marcie adds.

Of course, sometime women show up at the meetings and confess that they haven’t read the book being discussed. And that’s okay. “The one rule is if you don’t get a book read, don’t apologize,” Marcie says. “Still sit in on the meeting and see if you don’t have a desire to read more and read well.” Some women who show up haven’t read a book in years. “Maybe they can only read a chapter, and then the next month a little more. And if they stay with us, one day they are reading all the books.”

A Well Read Mom group catches up in New York City.
A Well-Read Mom group catches up in New York City

Bringing classics back into print

Well-Read Mom has grown exponentially over the years. Keeping it running is an immense amount of work. Each year’s theme and reading list have to be prepared as much as three years in advance. Some of the desired books are out of print, so Marcie and her team must convince publishers to reprint them. There is one book by a famous Catholic writer that she has been struggling to get republished for years now.

The yearly reading guide, which is itself the size of a small book, also has to be carefully curated and prepared. Though there are some outside sponsors, most of the funds needed to keep Well-Read Mom running come from memberships. Membership fees are also used to help women who need financial assistance to participate. No woman is turned away.

For Marcie, the immense efforts are worth it as she sees hearts enriched and lives changed. “People are helped in their marriages and people are helped raising children,” she says. “Even though that might not have even been the original intention, these books just help you. It’s a starting point for a relationship.”

Interested readers can join Well-Read Mom here. For a limited time, they are featuring a 2 for 1 membership offer – purchase a membership this year and get next year’s membership free.

They also have an interactive map where you can learn if there is currently a Well-Read Mom group in your area.

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