Just over one year ago, I made a conscious decision to take a year and try to diversify my reading. Initially, my rules were that I could not read books by white men unless they included diverse perspectives and passed a Bechtel test of sorts.
However, as I began this project, I have realized that this project was a small part of a larger search on my part. This larger search has to do with books, but it was really about stories, about who gets to tell stories and about whose stories are published, talked about and lauded in our society.
What I realized is that cutting out white men was not enough. There are some great books about LBGTQ issues written by white men, and some terrible books that portray women in unrealistic and unfortunate ways that are written by women. What I needed to do was to start looking more closely at the publishing industry, and start thinking hard about where and how I heard about my books.
Ultimately, by the end of this year, my goal became to bring my reading life closer to the diversity in my society, to find the same richness of voices and perspectives in my reading that I see in our world. This meant looking at international books, looking at books from different cultural perspectives, particularly those by women of color, and taking the time to find books by smaller publishers and books that did not get the ad dollars that well-recognized, established authors, who are more likely to be white or male, might get. This meant recognizing that the list of books I wasn’t going to read in this past year might get even longer than I had anticipated.
Another aspect of this challenge that I felt was important was that I didn’t want to limit myself to books about serious social justice topics. While I find these books interesting, I also love mysteries, science fiction, comedy and fluff reading as well, and I wasn’t going to give these up. Usually this was completely possible, and I actually discovered some amazing new authors this way, although I quickly found that the field of natural history, which I had spent most of my graduate program reading, was sorely lacking in any books written by women or people of color.
I had some help finding books. There are some amazing websites, podcasts and resources for those of us who want to read further than the New York Times bestseller list, and these helped me find books that I loved that fit my goal and my reading cravings. This project meant that I was connecting with readers who had similar goals from all over the world and the country, and what they had to say was a part of how I adjusted and reconsidered my project throughout the year
Over the year, I have structured my posts by talking about books and then talking about what went well, what did not go well and what I am reading next, so I would like to recap my year in a similar way:
Books I finished this year
Over the past year, I have read and shared 107 books. About half of them were by new authors, but some were also by old favorites, and while I did not love them all, I feel like I learned something from each one. Every quarter I have chosen favorites from the last three months, and I have also looked at the ways that these books have reflected my goals, including looking at the balance of racial backgrounds, publishing houses, the years books were published and much more.
Favorites of the Year
Every quarter, I chose my favorite audio-book and my favorite book of the quarter. These books are not necessarily the “best” books (For example, while I really enjoyed it, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, which is an incredible and groundbreaking book, did not make it). From these choices, I have chosen one from each category as my favorite book of the year. Below you can find what favorite books of the year were, as well as all the finalists. I have also linked to their reviews in case you want to remember what I said.
It is hard to judge a book for staying power right after you have finished it, and so I hesitated here, but ultimatley I decided that in terms of the power of audio-books, these two books deserved the win equally. One of the things I love about the audio format is its power to bring voices to life.
In The Hate U Give, the audio-book narrator’s subtle code switching and ability to convey the emotions of a teenage girl made this wonderful book by Angie Thomas a sublime listening experience that conveyed so much more about that world then words on a page ever could.
In Between the World And Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates brought his own words to life in his own voice and delivered a ground shaking performance. Because he was speaking to his son, listening to his book made what he was saying intensely personal, and hearing it in his own voice amplified this feeling.
Favorite Physical Book: Doc
This was a tough category to pick from, but ultimately, Mary Doria Russell’s beautiful language and incredible ability to describe people and places won out. This year, I realized that I had only read one or two books by many of the authors who I said were favorites, and I wanted to delve a little deeper. Mary Doria Russell quickly became my favorite author as I read more of her work, and I am now rationing her books so I don’t run out too quickly.
Doc was the story of Doc Holliday, but it was also an exploration of how we mythologize real people. The language was exquisite, the story flowed, and the characters were fascinating, real and complex. I wanted more the minute I put this down, and I have Epitaph, which is another book by Russell about the same characters, sitting on my shelf, waiting for a rainy day.
Racial Background and Gender
Here I have looked at the racial and gender breakdown of the authors I have read over the past year ( each author is only counted once here, even if I read more than one of their books), and then looked at a regional breakdown of their racial backgrounds.
This is the one I am the most challenged by. Despite aiming for diversity, almost half of the authors I read over the past year were white women. For someone who is trying to hear other voices, and is a white woman herself, this is a hard statistic to see. I do wish I had a baseline for what I was reading before to see how this compares.
Overall, I see this as a part of the realization process here. I realized about halfway through that this was happening, and in the recent months I have attempted to stretch even further, but since I haven’t been reading as much it is hard to adjust so quickly.
This is a statistic I am curious about, but don’t worry too much about. One of the things that is interesting is that while I there are many older books I am interested in reading, the past few years have been amazing in terms of fabulous books by diverse authors being published. Not that there are not amazing backlist titles by diverse authors, but given the recent rise in websites and other media looking at diversity, more recent titles were just more available.
The prevalence of the major 5 publishing houses (Pengun Random House, Hachette Book Group, Pan Macmillan, Simon & Schuster and Harper Collins) was something I was not really aware of before the past year. Despite the fact that almost 37% of the books that I read came from Penguin Random house, I am really proud of the fact that almost 30% of the books I read came from independent publishers or were public domain.
Considering the fact that over 80% of the books published in the United States every year come from one of these 5 publishers, I feel like managing 30% from other sources is an achievement.
Moving forward, this is probably one of the places I think I will try and be more conscious, especially in my book buying habits. By buying books from small publishers, you are helping the independent book industry stay healthy, which allows more authors from diverse backgrounds to get published. For example, more books in translation come from smaller publishers, so by buying these, you are helping ensure that English speaking readers will get the best of international literature in the years to come.
This one is something I have been casually tracking this year. It wasn’t part of my goal, but never having tracked my reading this closely, I was curious about what I was actually reading. As you can see, almost 75% of the books I read were fiction, but when I broke them down by genre, things were fairly spread out among different types of fiction and non-fiction.
When I think about his as a whole, I think it also comes down to the fact the non fiction as a genre is more dominated by white men, which contemporary fiction seems to be a genre more dominated by women, so I simply has more to choose from. This is one of those aspects I had never really thought about until I started to break down what I was reading. I will be interested to see if I do end up reading more non-fiction now that I don’t have restrictions on my reading.
What did not go well
I walked into this year with the strong instinct that something about the books I was encountering on bestseller lists and other book media were not representative of my experience, but I did not have words to articulate what that was. I have to admit that the breadth of what I ended up taking on surprised me, and has been hard to manage at times.
In particular, I struggled with the fact that so many of the books I was gravitating towards were by white authors, even when I took books by white men off the table. I still feel like I could have done a better job at times of limiting these books, or seeking further for more diverse books that would have filled the same craving.
However, I have also come to recognize that some of this comes from the fact that books that feel familiar often feel more comfortable, and when we feel more comfortable, we are comforted. So this also reflects the fact that as a white women, there are lots of books in which I can find comfort, and for people from other backgrounds, these books are not as easy to find.
What else did not go well? I’m not perfect, and this project wasn’t either, but I like to think that I have done something fun with this, and that at the very least, the people around me have been encouraged to find their own ways of stretching their reading lives.
What went well
I am very aware that there is something slightly jarring about a white woman taking on a project like this, and I want to acknowledge that. However, I do feel like this is something that it is important for everyone to do, and I also have come to realize that book recommendations are something we usually get from the people in our social circle, and from people who are similar to us in many ways. So I have come to see this project as a way of amplifying the voices of authors who may not be as well-known by people who look like me and come from similar backgrounds. If I can, as a reader, recommend these books to those people, I feel I have done something for encouraging diversity in the world around me.
With this being said, I am not sure I learned anything important this year. I read a lot, and I was exposed to many new perspectives and ideas. I have spent a lot of time listening and trying to absorb these voices without letting myself react or get defensive. And while I feel like my awareness of sexism and racism in our society is heightened it is so hard to determine how much this is because of this project, and how mush this is because of all the other terrible things we have been through over the past year.
I will say that I can’t imagine a better time to be doing this, as so much of what I was trying to get at through this very personal project has been demonstrated so horrifically over the past year. From the #MeToo movement to the current administration, so much of what has been happening has been on my mind as I read stories of police shootings, of post apocalyptic societies obsessed with dehumanizing certain people in their worlds. The stories I have read has reflected the realities we are starting to see expressed, and this confluence had motivated me to keep going, and led me to new and interesting books.
Maybe I have learned a little through this process. While I haven’t had a moment when I felt the world shifting beneath me, I certainly will never try to argue that the Lord of the Rings books are not racist or sexist, although I still admit that I love the books and will probably read them again.
On a personal note, this project got me back into reading in a big way, Having spent the last two years in graduate school, I hadn’t had a lot of time to read, and it was so nice to take the time to take care of myself by reading, and to give myself permission to do this through this project. I don’t know if I have ever read over 100 books in a year, and I don’t know if I ever want to again, but to have done that in the year after graduating felt like a big reset on my life, and definitely reminded me of what great therapy reading is for me.
What happens next?
Right now, I feel like taking a couple of weeks to relax and maybe even read some of my old favorites. However, even with my self-imposed restrictions limited, I feel like I will continue to be more aware of whose voices I am listening to, in the books I read and in the TV, movies and podcasts that I watch.
I also will be moving to a new website called Fact and Fable. I will be setting that up in the next few days and will let you all know when it is up! You can expect to continue to hear about books, as well as podcasts, nature fact and other things that I am interested in. I am excited about branching out my blogging a bit, and getting to talk about more of my interests.
Thank you so much to all of you who have been reading and engaging with me over the past year!