On Friday, I wrote about the reading challenge I set for myself in 2015, and about the books I read last year. I mentioned that I tried to get a count of authors by race and gender, but after a lot of tally marks and frustration, I gave up. Not only was it complicated, it didn’t feel productive.
I’ll talk about gender on Wednesday, but for now let me focus on race. While doing my count, if I wasn’t certain of an author’s race, I would Google them. It’s usually (not always) possible to figure out if a person is white from a picture, which is what I started off doing. Before long, looking at my own notes started to bother me. I had a column marked “White” and one marked “POC” (people of color). I might as well say that there are only two races, “white” and “not white.” Most of the authors I read are American, so the first line of their Wikipedia page isn’t likely to divulge their heritage in great detail. Names can be misleading, too. I think the one case that made me realize how reductive I was being was Lisa See, who wrote a book set in China and has a Chinese-sounding surname. In pictures, she appears to be white. But on her website she writes about her Chinese grandparents and her efforts to bridge Chinese and American cultures. People are more than a check mark.
Here’s my dilemma, then, as a reader. I am white. I grew up in a mostly-white community, where white teachers and librarians and friends and relatives gave me books written by other white people to read. I read those books and recommended them to my friends, who were also white. For a long time, all of my favorite authors looked like me, and I didn’t realize there was a problem with that, or really even notice it, until I was in my twenties.
At the risk of sounding super corny, reading is supposed to expand our horizons. It’s supposed to teach us empathy. I don’t need every book to shake apart my whole worldview, but it should make me think a little bit. If I only read people who look and live like me, that’s not going to happen.
Even though my tracking system was flawed, I was able to pick out a few things about my reading in 2015. Of the 70 books I finished, about 60 were written by white authors. I can’t ignore a discrepancy that large, so how to deal with it?
There were a lot of interesting pieces around in early 2015 written by people who had stopped reading white, male, cis, or straight authors, or some combination of the above, for a year or more. There’s a pretty good summary of that phenomenon here. I admire that dedication, but I’m not sure I could do it. I’m better at additive goals, exercise more instead of eat less, for example. Telling me to do or have none of something is usually a good recipe for making me want that thing more; just ask my Catholic upbringing and all the chocolate I “gave up” for Lent. Also I haven’t read the new John Irving book yet, and there’s no way I’ll make it all year without caving on that.
That said, my proposed resolution: I will finish 35 books written by authors of color in 2016.
It’s not perfect. I’m still not satisfied with the idea of lumping together all people of color into one “non-white” category. But I feel like I have to start somewhere, and this is it. I would have put less thought into it if I wasn’t blogging about my reading life, for sure. I am really grateful to everyone who is reading right now. You’re all keeping me accountable, just by behind here.
What are your book resolutions this year? Are you going to read more books? Are you doing a “Read Harder” challenge like the ones at BookRiot or Panels? Can you rec me some of your favorite diverse literature? Tell me everything in the comments.