Cover of "The Secret of Superhuman Strength"

“The Secret to Superhuman Strength”: 5 Reasons to Read

Cover of "The Secret to Superhuman Strength"

Why You Want to Read The Secret to Superhuman Strength Even if You Think You Don’t

Alison Bechdel is arguably the best author of graphic literature out there, and her latest book, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, more than lives up to all of the hype it has received.

I have been resistant to reading this book, but I was also resistant to reading her first graphic memoir, Fun Home, and that one pleasantly surprised me as well.

The Secret to Superhuman strength is supposedly about Bechel’s lifelong relationship with personal fitness.  If that sounds kind of boring to you, rest assured there is a lot more to her book than that.  In fact, if you are a fitness fanatic who is interested in reading about Bechel’s fitness journey, you are probably going to be disappointed.

So here are the reasons why you want to read this book, even if you don’t care that much about fitness.

Bechdel’s passion for fitness is strongly connected to her passion for the outdoors.

Bechdel has been into some indoor fitness regimes over the years, but she is really far more interested in exploring the outdoors.  Her enduring passions include running, hiking, skiing (alpine and Nordic), and cycling.  Guess what they all have in common?

So when you read her graphic memoir about doing these things, you get to see a lot of her mesmerizing illustrations.  Most of the large spreads depict the New England countryside surrounding her Vermont home.

I buy very few books, but I would consider buying this one just to be able to pick it up and peruse her paintings of the outdoor world.  And I’m more of a city person.

Bechdel has a knack for picking up the minutiae of life that we forgot we remember.

Bechdel was born in 1960, and she has a genius for picking up some of the minutiae of life and putting them in the background of her panels.  If you are a late Baby Boomer or Gen X, you will probably enjoy these asides as much as I did.  Her panel showing her logging into AOL by phone is a lesson in onomatopoeia all by itself.

If you are a literature geek, you are going to be fascinated by her foray into the Transcendentalists and Romantics.

If you were asleep during that part of English class, and I don’t really blame you considering the way these authors are usually taught, the best known Transcendentalists include Emerson and Thoreau.  The Romantic authors Bechdel emphasizes are Wordsworth and Coleridge. 

The Transcendentalist movement in the United States and the Romantic movement in the United Kingdom were related.  Both of them emphasized a return to and appreciation of nature during a time when the industrial revolution was taking people away from the land in large numbers.

Of course, none of these people were either actually working the land or working in factories; they were just upset about the shift.

Also, they were pretty experimental in their lifestyles.  The Baby Boomers did not invent experimentation with drugs and alternative lifestyles.  The teachers just didn’t tell us those parts.

Bechdel tells us about the women who were involved in Romanticism and Transcendentalism.

Who knew? I didn’t, and I majored in English!

Bechdel’s revelations about the sexual (and otherwise) liaisons of Wordsworth, Coleridge and their contemporaries didn’t come as a huge shock to me. I had no idea, however, that Emerson and Thoreau were pretty much up to the same things. I mean, Emerson was a minister! 

Of course, while these guys were fooling around with all of these women, and marrying some of them, the women also contributed to their work.  Work that has largely gone undocumented. 

Bechdel also introduced me to a woman named Margaret Fuller, a women with the same capabilities as these men but limited opportunity.

Uncovering “The Secret to Superhuman Strength”

Guess what? If you want to do something that is superhuman, you need to go beyond the physical and delve into the spiritual.  If I tell you that the indoor sport that Bechdel discusses most often is yoga, you will probably figure out where this is going.

Yes, the serious practice of yoga often leads to an interest in Buddhism, which Bechdel also addresses extensively.  As someone who has lived abroad for extended  periods of time, I have a healthy level of cynicism about people who dabble in religions (and cultures) and think they are somehow profound.  Mostly I just fell embarrassed for them and about them.

The thing about Bechdel is that before you can roll your eyes, she’s going to lay out on the ironies and inconsistencies for you.  A Buddhist instructor who spends every break sucking on cigarettes?  Check.  She’s going to call it before you do.

Final Words

I think Bechdel’s graphic memoirs have the most words of any writer/author I’ve read.  There is a lot going on in that woman’s brain, and she needs at least two media to contain them all.  If nothing else, The Secret to Superhuman Strength is a good value because it’s a pretty long read.  Usually I read graphic works in one or two sittings, but this one took three.

You might think that Bechdel’s is too hipster for you, but in fact, somehow those details start to seem inconsequential as you read.  You won’t connect with everything, but I would argue there is something for everyone.

Is The Secret to Superhuman Strength book club worthy?

Absolutely.  There is so much in here about so many things.  The book ends around the time of pandemic, and it that sense it’s both universal and personal.

I’m not sure if a book club made up of younger people would be into The Secret of Superhuman Strength.  For a group of mostly 40 and below, I would recommend Fun Home instead.  For a mixed age group or a group mostly 40 and above, I recommend The Secret of Superhuman Strength.

In graphic literature, the design and the images are as important as the words.  To make it easier to discuss this book, set up a document camera for the discussion if possible.  Teachers often use these to make it easy to show student work or pages from a book to a large group.  If there is no teacher in the group who has one to lend, it might be worth purchasing one.

Discovering Graphic Literature

If you think that “graphic novel” are something for kids, you really need to check out what’s coming out now. 

The problem is that it can be hard to find out about what’s good. In my experience, both libraries and large bookstores, don’t seem to know what to do with them.

Libraries tend to connect them to their Young Adult collections.

And Barnes & Noble is all about manga, which is a totally different thing.

Bechdel is best known for “Fun Home”

If you want get a better idea of what’s out there, this is one time you really do need to go to an independent bookstore.  Independents tend to market to people with taste, and they tend to know their customers’ tastes.