Bookworm: For a classic TV watcher, ‘When Women Invented Television’ is gold

And ‘Pipe Dreams’ doesn’t just rest on ick alone

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist

“When Women Invented Television: The Untold Story of the Female Powerhouses Who Pioneered the Way We Watch Today”

  • By Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
  • c.2021, Harper
  • $27.99, $34.99 Canada; 334 pages

Turn it up. This is the best part of the whole series; it’s a great bit, the funniest one. You’ve seen every episode of this favorite show multiple times and you know the must-watch scenes, every line, every outfit change, new set and new character. And in “When Women Invented Television” by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, you’ve still got a lot to learn.

“When Women Invented Television: The Untold Story of the Female Powerhouses Who Pioneered the Way We Watch Today” by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong.

Gertrude Berg clearly understood how much power she wielded – still, in the fall of 1948, when she walked into the Madison Avenue office of the man in charge of CBS, she knew she was taking a chance.

For years, she’d been the writer, casting director, star, and force behind the network’s most popular radio show, “The Goldbergs.” Berg wanted to take that popularity to the new medium of television, and she told William S. Paley so. He agreed, and by the end of 1949, “The Goldbergs” was a hit with a solid sponsor and Gertrude Berg was a television star.

It was not quite as easy for Irna Phillips. Today, we’d tell Phillips to slow down. She was a hundred-mile-an-hour single mother of two adopted children and the creator, solo writer, and daily juggler of multiple radio “soap operas.” She saw the coming of television and its irresistible possibilities but getting her work there was a struggle.

Hazel Scott had no problem transitioning from live concerts to TV: the DuMont Network had approached the piano “genius” with the offer of a prime-time show. No more dealing with Jim Crow laws. No more on-tour weeks away from her husband and son. A steady job close to home was a dream for Scott, until the Red Scare of the 1950s targeted this Black woman.

Betty White had one motto: “Always say yes.”

"When Women Invented Television: The Untold Story of the Female Powerhouses Who Pioneered the Way We Watch Today" author Jennifer Keishin Armstrong.

So, when career opportunities were offered, she took them, transitioning from radio to TV easily and moving up the ladder to stardom. But, says Armstrong, White’s decisions affected her personal life for decades to come.

For a classic TV watcher, “When Women Invented Television” is gold. It’s a delight in ink and paper, like reading about the outtakes of your favorite shows.

But it seems to be ... off. Like something is missing, perhaps because author and journalist Jennifer Keishin Armstrong chose to shrink four stories and several decades into a mere 276 pages of narrative, which doesn’t seem enough. Or maybe it’s because little of the stories come directly from the women themselves (three of them are deceased). Perhaps streaming the shows or finding clips online might help give a better frame of reference.

And yet, if you’re hooked on TV, this is a book for you.

The remarkableness of these four women’s history-making achievements is clear when Armstrong puts them into a time-perspective, and it’s easy to get a bit outraged that their accomplishments have been forgotten. This book fixes that oversight.

And so, ignore your Chill-queue this weekend, turn off the screen, and settle in to watch a good story unfold. “When Women Invented Television” is must-read TV. Don’t turn it down.

“Pipe Dreams: The Urgent Global Quest to Transform the Toilet”

  • By Chelsea Wald
  • c.2021, Avid Reader Press
  • $27, $36.00 Canada; 304 pages

Four plastic bricks. A t-shirt, size 3T. Three random socks, mismatched. One small rubber dinosaur, a bowl of cereal with bowl and spoon, your smartphone, the dog’s collar, a box of paper clips, and two miniature cars. Sadly, you know your toilet works because all the above were flushed by a toddler on a tear and in the new book “Pipe Dreams” by Chelsea Wald, you’ll see what else shouldn’t get flushed, and why.

“Pipe Dreams: The Urgent Global Quest to Transform the Toilet” by Chelsea Wald.

Chelsea Wald is definitely not the “Queen of Latrines.”

Nope, but several years ago, her mind was opened “in stages,” she says.

“Finally, I came to realize that, until we consider toilets, we can’t understand any story, including our own.”

The truth is that some two million Americans, north to south, large cities and rural areas, live without indoor toilets. Millions more around the world live in places where sanitation is poor or lacking; in fact, “hundreds of millions of people world-wide” don’t use a toilet at all, which leads not only to a big Ick Factor, but also to disease, long-term soil issues, pollution, inequality, and climate problems.

Agents of change look different in different parts of the world.

In India, near what was once Calcutta, says Wald, Community-Led Total Sanitation was created to change the mindsets of those who refuse to use toilets by showing them the effects of their habits. We already know that many diseases are carried by improperly disposed body wastes; in the U.S., sewage wastewater is tested scientifically to check the health of those who flush toilets along a system. In Denmark, pregnant women are encouraged to donate to Mothers for Mothers, which uses body fluids for fertility treatments. Inventors in various places on Earth are looking at recycling both waste and water, mining sewage for the valuables inside it, making drinking water safe, and making toilet paper a more sustainable product.

"Pipe Dreams: The Urgent Global Quest to Transform the Toilet" author Chelsea Wald.

“In one sense,” Wald says, “toilets are the great equalizer.”

Fixing what’s wrong with the system they’re hooked into “will require not only new technologies but also social change.”

If you’re wrinkling your nose a little now, you can stop. Feelings of disgust are things that author Chelsea Wald covers here but “Pipe Dreams” doesn’t just rest on ick alone.

Indeed, a lot of thought is required of readers who step gingerly into this book. Wald asks us to examine our own attitudes toward sanitation, going beyond the as-long-as-it-works mode of thinking and into understanding what could, in the not-so-distant future, become something very, very bad. She offers advice to those who are willing to tackle this usually-ignored aspect of environmentalism and once your eyes are opened, she encourages activism. Yes, there’s information here that will occasionally make you squirm, but it’ll also make you think twice before blithely using the sewer as a trash bin.

So, thank your local sanitation worker. Fish out those plastic bricks and rubber dinosaurs before the big whoosh. Consider a new toilet and read “Pipe Dreams.”

Doing so will leave you flush with knowledge.

More:Bookworm: ‘Raft of Stars’ seizes cozy sense of nostalgia

And:Bookworm: ‘Women in White Coats’ celebrates the groundbreakers

Also:Bookworm: Drama, period gossip highlights Barbizon tales

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.