The Noble Reading Project, and Other Failures

Remind me never to take on another project that isn’t writing a novel or raising a child or teaching a class — e.g., nothing that commits me well into the future when there is no compensation and no obligation. I ventured into my goal of reading exclusively women of color in 2015 with the best of intentions, and launched into it early but still did not make it a year, let alone all of 2015.

I have to admit some of the piss was taken out of me by a spate of articles about men who’d done what I was doing. I read a few books I didn’t care for, and felt ashamed for not liking them. My motivation started to flag. My mind started to wander. I’ve always been a mercurial reader.

So this spring I read some of the much buzzed YA books of the year — Bone Gap, The Walls Around Us, and Read Between the Lines are all terrific, by women at the top of their game. I meant to blog about them all but failed there, too (and have nothing to add to the chorus of acclaim for them all). In a way, that was a refreshing vacation from my own taste. I don’t actually like YA, or claim not to, but these books refute the facile claims that YA is especially “dark” or “morally certain.” I think the only thing YA really claims to be is about the teen experience.

More recently, I became hooked on the novels of Mat Johnson, who is, well, a dude. While everybody talks about race and talks about how we need to talk about race, I find Johnson does so more deftly and with more wit and verve than anyone else, at least that I’ve read.

I made excuses to myself because at least all of the books I were reading were either by women or a person of color, but I also recently read some essays by Edward O. Wilson, who is a white dude scientist who studies ants. As I noted back when I began my journey, the worst representation of women of color is in nonfiction, particularly when you move into the sciences (memoir, social justice, and history have better selections). If you want to read about science, and are limited to women authors from non-European backgrounds, the pickings are very slim. I did come to this book through an interest in Wilson specifically, anyway, but holy cow, are all the science books by white people, and most of them men.

I expect somebody will comment that it doesn’t matter because an ant is an ant, regardless of writing about it, but I think about young people — whipping smart ones, with an interest in the natural world — walking into that section and feeling that they’re in the “wrong” section. It makes me wonder, with the call for children’s books by diverse authors, where is the call for quality nonfiction across the curriculum that tells all children, this entire world is yours to study?

Anyway, back to my reading… it is time to concede that I have wandered off the path and will continue to do so. I have to read The Empathy Exams for a class I’m teaching, and have a towering to-be-read pile with all kinds of books by all kinds of people. Many of them are people of color, many are women, and many are both, but I am hereby removing all rules and strictures from myself.

However, I think it was a good practice while it lasted. I’ve come to be less likely to go straight to the white/male books, but actively seek out other points of view. I’m sure my reading habits have been permanently changed from it.

I have become more aware of ways that representation is still a problem — it is one thing to scan a bookshelf for proof that books by women or people of color exist, quite another to have only those options. And there other things I now know. Books by African American authors have long wait lists at the library, apparently in high demand by readers who can’t afford to go buy the book, but also suggesting the library isn’t meeting demand because they underpurchase those books in the first place. The audiobook section is particularly thin and picked over when you’re looking for books by women of color; I think aside from Toni Morrison and a few other luminaries, few get the honor of an audiobook production. Even acclaimed books with glowing reviews in all the major publications might be picked up by only a few bookstores; books that I’m sure would be in end-cap displays if they had the same buzz and white authors on the back. And, as previously mentioned, nonfiction is an utter desert.

I would not be aware of any of this if I hadn’t forced myself to look only for books that meet those two criteria. I would have probably gestured at a few bestsellers and award winners by women of color as counter-proof that everything is hunky dory. “Look, Roxane Gay is here, and Claudia Rankine is there, so there must not be a problem!”

I have also come to regard books by privileged people with more healthy skepticism. I can still enjoy a literary tour de force, but have less patience with the art-for-arts-sake self-indulgence that used to be my primary pleasure. It’s not that there are two genres of literature, exclusively staffed by white men on the one count and women of color on the other, but I kinda think that maybe white male writers suffer from a pathological self-regard that leads to stylistic navel-gazing and expertise-on-all-things. And that in Danticat and Adichie, especially, I found a vital currency and immediacy, books about experience of living instead of the experience of reading a book, that made me feel their books were important, not just as books, but as historical artifacts. I don’t feel that way reading David Mitchell, however dazzling his artistry.

Anyway, I’m letting myself off the hook, but feel generally less stupid for having tried.

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