Friday, January 2, 2015

Diversifying My Reading: A Look Back at 2014's Lessons

In 2013, I undertook what turned out to be a lengthy but worthwhile project to determine whether I was being exposed to diverse viewpoints in my reading. I exported all the books from my Goodreads account (excluding picture books), and for each book I looked up the author's gender, nationality, and race. If the book was fiction, I also included the main character's gender, nationality, and race. Clearly this didn't capture every aspect of diversity, but I wanted to use demographic information that was relatively easy to determine. (If you're interested in a more detailed description of my methodology, let me know.)

I found, not surprisingly, that the vast majority of books I had read were by white Americans, with more male than female authors and protagonists. I decided that 2014 was the year I would bring some balance to my reading.

Knowing that my four book clubs read almost exclusively books by white Americans, I knew I couldn't eliminate these authors entirely, but I could still try to branch out. I set a goal that no more than half of the books I read in 2014 would be by white authors or have white protagonists, no more than half by Americans or with American protagonists, and that there would be an even gender split among authors and protagonists.

First, did I reach my goal? On the author side, I came close, but didn't quite succeed. Of the 120 books* I read in 2014:
  • 50.8% were by male authors and 49.2% by female authors
  • 52.5% were by American authors
  • 51.7% were by white authors

I did a bit better with fictional characters. Out of 76 works of fiction I read this year (63% of all 120 books):
  • There was an even gender split: 31 had male protagonists, 31 had female protagonists, and 14 had both male and female protagonists.
  • Only a little over a third (35.5%) of the main characters were American.
  • Less than half (43.4%) of the main characters were white.

Even though, statistically speaking, I didn't quite meet my goal for the year, I found that seeking out books by people of color, both Americans and non-Americans, was incredibly valuable. I want to share some of my thoughts and observations from undertaking this goal this year.

The first thing I realized as I started to compile my to-read list is that most of the books had fairly heavy subject matter. Books by and about Americans of color dealt largely with experiences of racism (their own or those of their fictional characters) and/or the struggles of immigration, while many of the most well-known books by and about people in African, Asian, and South American countries dealt with civil war, colonial rule, and oppressive governments. (I also read way more detailed descriptions of starvation than I want to encounter again in the near future.)

I think there are a few reasons for this. For one thing, as became abundantly clear to me through my reading this year, it's nearly impossible to be an American of color and not experience some form of racism on a fairly regular basis, so it would be disingenuous not to include that in an honest memoir or realistic novel. And big moments in history, whether it's celebrating a country's independence from colonial rule or suffering through a civil war, are natural topics for authors to gravitate toward when seeking stories.

I wonder, also, if this narrow range of topics is the result of bias among white Americans in publishing, purchasing, and recommending books. That is, we trust people of color to write about "their" areas — slavery, racism, immigration — but when it comes to covering other topics, whether in fiction or nonfiction, there is a tendency to favor white authors.

I don't know this to be true, but it wouldn't surprise me. One thing I found over the course of the year was that I was bombarded with the usual slew of book recommendations from various sources — friends and family, blogs, news articles, lists shared on Facebook, etc. — and as I would look through them to see if there were any by authors of color to add to my to-read list, I found those to be few and far between. When a book by a person of color was recommended, it tended to be a book about one of those topics mentioned above. (Edited to add: This also fits with the fact that black actors tend to win Academy Awards more often for playing "stereotypical" roles like slaves, maids, and abusive or absent parents than for strong historical figures like Malcolm X or Nelson Mandela.)

To get most recommendations, I had to specifically seek out sources like the "Books White People Need to Read" (nonfiction) and "Best Fiction and Memoirs by Authors of Color" lists on Goodreads to find recommendations. The #colormyshelf project was also helpful, although it focused primarily on children's books.

The difficulty with many of these lists was that these books were not considered "mainstream," and thus they were more difficult to get access to. I've discussed my reading formats previously and that I tend to seek out books on Kindle and audiobook from the library first, then look for hard copy library books. Books recommended to me by white authors were more likely to be available in a digital format and, if not, to have hard copies at my local library and not require a special request. I requested many more books this year through PaperBackSwap that just weren't available at any nearby library.

So those were the difficulties in this project: Lack of access to the books, lack of widespread recommendations, and lots of heavy subject matter. What were the upsides?

I learned a LOT, including about things I didn't even know I was ignorant about. I learned about independence and Partition in India (Midnight's Children, A Suitable Boy) and about the forced sterilization programs that took place there (A Fine Balance). I learned about the Rwandan genocide from both a Hutu (An Ordinary Man) and a Tutsi (Left to Tell). I learned about the experience of immigrants to the United States from Nigeria (Americanah), Vietnam (Inside Out and Back Again), India (The Namesake), Afghanistan (And the Mountains Echoed), Haiti (Breath, Eyes, Memory), and China (The Fire Horse Girl). I had no idea about the disappearance of Morocco's Oufkir family until reading Stolen Lives.

I learned about communist China under Mao (Dreams of Joy), the Haitian slave revolts that led to the country's independence (Island Beneath the Sea), and the 1947 West African railroad strike (God's Bits of Wood). I learned about the experiences of American Indians in the United States, from the Old West (Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee), to the recent past (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian), to the present day (The Inconvenient Indian). I read about what happened to slaves who helped out British troops during the American Revolution in Someone Knows My Name.

Among American-born authors of color, I gained a lot of insight about their experiences. I learned about racial identity formation from "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" and My Beloved World. I learned about the brutal racism of past decades from The Souls of Black Folk, Warriors Don't Cry, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, The Fire Next Time, and Sister Outsider, and the stereotypes that still linger today from Sister Citizen, More Than Serving Tea, and Member of the Club. I got an inside look at inner-city Chicago from Gang Leader for a Day.

There were a few nonfiction books by authors of color that taught me things not having to do with legacies of racism and oppression. Atul Gawande's excellent The Checklist Manifesto was a favorite this year, and David Kuo's Tempting Faith was a frightening look at how conservative politicians use faith in their campaigns as a tool of manipulation.

I did read a handful of novels by white authors that featured protagonists of different races and nationalities, but I found most of them lacking. The Breadwinner was an exception (it was a favorite book of the year). The Fire Horse Girl denigrated Chinese culture in an attempt to show how much better the independent-minded protagonist fit in in America; Homeless Bird was like a big middle-grade lesson on the culture of India with a plot built awkwardly around it; and Walk Two Moons, while an excellent story, seemed to shoehorn in a random assortment of references to American Indian culture while not giving the protagonist much of a racial identity of her own.

Reading multiple books on some of the same topics showed me the danger of letting one person's perspective or story represent a whole. For example, the two books on the Rwandan genocide were by two very different people who had very different experiences during that time period and took away totally different lessons from their experiences. On the other hand, reading black Americans' experiences with racism ranging from the early 1900s to the 2000s allowed me to see the common threads, all the things that sadly haven't changed much, as well as those that have.

So was the project worth it? Absolutely. I didn't know how much I was missing until I started actively seeking out these books, and I still have many more on my to-read list that I hope to get to in the years to come.

Even if you don't want to make a structured effort to diversify your reading, I think it's worth considering some of the larger lessons from my year-long reading adventure. If you get recommendations primarily from the same few sources, are you missing out on other great books? Are you passing by certain recommendations because you see them as not relevant to you? (This was a large contributor to my previous lack of diversity.) Are there areas of the world you don't know much about, or periods of history that you only got a rough outline of in history class?

Consider keeping these questions in mind as you cultivate your own to-read list for the year(s) to come. I'd love to hear about your own experiences branching out in one way or another.

Did you set and achieve any book-related goals in 2014?

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*You'll see my Goodreads Challenge meter says I read 122 books. I'm not counting The Message Remix Bible translation because I finished it early on January 1st after working through it for three years (and I wouldn't even begin to know how to classify the authors), and I also rated and reviewed a script I read for a community play I tried out for, but I didn't count that in my book analysis.


  1. This is such an interesting topic...really enjoyed reading this article. I read so many books each year, but usually choose due to interest or recommendations; what a great idea about being intentional about choosing books that look at different perspectives!

  2. Some good books by non-white authors that are NOT super-heavy topics but do have some interesting perspective:
    Eating Chinese Food Naked by Mei Ng
    In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord
    The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
    What You Owe Me by Bebe Moore Campbell

    Would you consider Orthodox Jews a "different" group? The Outside World by Tova Mirvis is a book you might like.