Saturday, January 9, 2016

Why Making a Public Commitment to Read Diversely Isn't a Bad Thing

I've been thinking about a recent article from the often-controversial Jezebel titled (sarcastically), "Damn, You're Not Reading Any Books by White Men This Year? That's So Freakin Brave and Cool." I can't promise that this post isn't at least partially a defensive response in light of my year of intentionally reading diversely (2014). But it got me thinking more generally about why we read, why we set goals, and why we talk about our goals, and I wanted to share my thoughts.

The writer makes two main points, as I understand it. The first point is that while there is a definite problem in the publishing world of things skewing white and male (and straight and able-bodied and so on), these resolutions tend to be more about the person making them and how they as an individual will be changed by the experience. The second point is that when you do things that are good for you, you should not publicize them. In other words, you should privately start reading a more diverse selection of books, and then simply let that inform the range of books you mention, recommend, etc.

To the first point, I say, yes, that is true. Resolutions are about the person making them. But... is that a problem? There is definitely a need to push back against the norms of publishing, such as by supporting organizations like We Need Diverse Books. But the major way an individual pushes back is in the books they choose to read, buy, and recommend. If that comes about only a consequence of more people making a personal commitment to broaden the scope of their reading... I'm not sure I'm seeing the part where this is a bad thing.

And maybe it is just about the reader personally feeling more educated and open-minded as a result of reading these books. Isn't that much of the reason we read, period? Certainly there is an element of engagement and entertainment, but a reading diet that includes at least a handful of "literary" type books is going to challenge and educate the reader. There's a reason researchers often tout the benefits of what fiction does to your brain, such as improving empathy. We as readers want to be stretched and to glimpse what it's like to be in someone else's head, and we can then go out and be better friends, spouses, neighbors, parents, coworkers, and citizens.

But what if you find that you — yes, you personally — have been limited in the fictional (or autobiographical) heads you've explored? That was the case for me in 2013, when I undertook an extensive project to categorize the gender, race, and nationality of the authors and main characters from every book I'd ever read (excluding most picture and chapter books I read as a kid for sheer number and lack of records). I found that, as I expected, they skewed very far white American, and more male than female.

So I spent 2014 not just trying to regain some kind of balance but also learning about my own tendencies that led to this skewing in the first place, which — as much as I would like to lay it at the feet of the publishing industry — had as much to do with my own habits and thought processes as anything else. I discovered that certain past experiences (like having to read The House on Mango Street in school twice, and disliking it both times) had implanted in my subconscious brain the idea that I "didn't like" Latin@ literature, something I only discovered by consciously pushing up against it.

Although I didn't announce my goal at the outset (simply because my blog didn't exist yet), I did write a reflection post on the year, which brings me to this article's second point. It would be wonderful if we lived in the kind of idealistic world the writer depicts, wherein we read books for their own sake and they just happen to fall across a diverse spectrum of topics and demographics. But until we live in that world, why not talk about how we don't? Why not admit that you are making a conscious effort to diversify your reading because you've recognized that, on your own, that doesn't happen?

I understand the point that resolutions don't always pan out and that it's crappy to make these kinds of public resolutions if you're just doing it in an attempt to show how "social justice-minded" you are or what a good "ally" you are. I get that. But it seems like most of the people she's calling out are people who already have platforms and audiences and write things about themselves, so why avoid mentioning this specific thing?

For the past two years I've shared my reading goals for the year (2015 goals, 2016 goals). Is there something permissible about saying I want to read more graphic novels or books about World War I that does not extend to wanting to read fewer books by white Americans?

The reasons for sharing the resolutions are the same: First and foremost, I want to hold myself accountable by publicly sharing my goals (and then, later, reflecting on whether I accomplished them). And secondly, I want to challenge other people to be self-reflective about their own reading habits and whether they've been intentionally or unintentionally avoiding books in certain genres or, more uncomfortably, by authors of certain ethnicities or nationalities.

This goes above and beyond just recommending books from my own diverse(r) reading selections, as the article suggests. As I said above, before I intentionally set out on a journey to broaden my reading, I wasn't aware that I was discounting particular book recommendations as "books I wouldn't be interested in." Sometimes someone else's personal challenge, made public, can inspire others to — if not do the same — turn a critical eye on their own thoughts and behaviors.

Two final thoughts:

I saw some responses to the Jezebel article that said simply, "Read what you want!" Which, to me, just underscores why it's so important to have these conversations, not just about what we're reading, but why. I don't think people realize the origins of what they "want" to read until they stop and think about them. As my own to-read list ballooned to 300+, I started being more mindful of what I added to the list, and why. Before a book gets added to my list now, I generally have to see it recommended multiple times in multiple places by people or publications I trust, and check with myself that I really do want to read it. However, if a book falls outside my own "default reading scope" (i.e., the books I naturally gravitate to), I am more likely to add it to my list after just a few recommendations. This is my own way of ensuring that the books I read continue to expand my mind rather than keep it running in its existing, well-worn circles.

Secondly, if you are considering your own resolution to read more diversely, I would point out that there's a reason my personal tracking system (which I continue to use for my own accountability) looks only at author and main character demographics. I cringe a little bit when I see book reviews that celebrate "diversity" on a surface level, as in, "This book is so diverse! There is a black character and a gay character and someone uses a wheelchair!" Google "tokenism" and read about the tendency to relegate non-white, non-straight, non-ablebodied characters to the role of "best friend" or "classmate." If you're a white person and your goal is to break out of your whitewashed reading box, then read books by people of color — of all genders — where the main character is a person of color. Don't be content to tick off that a book contains "diverse" people if you never get inside the head of someone different from yourself.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Have you tried to intentionally broaden your own reading in this way? If so, have you made this intention known to others? Why or why not?

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