The education of an actress — and activist

By Amanda Katz
Globe Correspondent / April 3, 2011

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In “All That Is Bitter and Sweet,” her new memoir, Ashley Judd describes how she left behind a tumultuous youth in a family of country music stars to become first a successful Hollywood actor, then an activist on social justice issues around the world. Judd, who completed a master’s degree in public administration at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2010, is married to race-car driver Dario Franchitti and is based in Tennessee. She will speak this week in Boston about her life and work.

What are you reading?

At the moment, I’m reading bell hooks’s book “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center.” I’m also reading “Making Haste from Babylon,” which is a retelling of the Pilgrim mothers’ and fathers’ journey on the Mayflower in 1620.

I also have my daily meditation and inspirational books. I’ve got some literature that’s written for friends and family of alcoholics, and I look at books by a guy called Eknath Easwaran. His daily reader is called “Words to Live By.” Another is simply called “Meditation,” and it’s the book from which I learned how to meditate.

What brought you to read bell hooks?

Well, I’m a social justice feminist. She’s African-American, I’m white, but we were raised in the same area. Our values and philosophies are congruent, so it’s interesting that we both sprang out of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

She is a remarkable voice. In addition to the sheer elegance of her thinking, what impresses me is her personal authority. She helped make race and class an essential part of the conversation about gender equality.

You say in the first line of your book that your favorite author is Edith Wharton.

And it’s about time that I started to reread her canon. I went through her entire oeuvre when I was in my mid-20s. I think I read “The Age of Innocence” first. Once I realized I was nuts about her writing, I decided to start at the very beginning — as I had done with Steinbeck — and read her work in order, because I really enjoyed the evolution of it. With Steinbeck, the smaller books are like etudes. They’re preliminary explorations of character and themes that eventually inform the books that changed the world.

What was your experience like reading in graduate school?

The syllabi were an incredible luxury: Some professor, who is deeply engaged and exceptionally up to the minute, is custom-designing a reading list. So the reading was sensational. In particular, I loved the reading in a class at Harvard Law School: Gender Violence, Law, and Social Justice.

Do you read memoirs?

I read two outstanding memoirs recently. One has got the best title: “Half-Life of a Zealot.” That was by Swanee Hunt. Great book. I read it over the course of a year — I was trying to read it while I was in school — and it turned out that things unfolded in my own life that were resonant with her journey.

Dario and I read “Open,” by Andre Agassi, and we just loved it. My husband’s an athlete, so he identified with a lot of it. That was a real topic of conversation around the house for three weeks.

Do you guys often read books together?

We got so much out of doing that with “Open” that we want to start doing it. We’re going to trade off. He gets to pick one, and then I pick one. So I’m going to put “Feminist Theory’’ on his nightstand.

I bet he’ll be the only race-car driver reading bell hooks.


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