Reading, Race, and the Diverse Books Discussion

I think if you polled readers, you’d get as many different answers to the question: “Why do you read?” as you would have total responses. However, I think it’s something of a universal feeling that readers read to connect to the world, to a character or a story, to the emotions and themes that drive each. Readers read because books provide an escape, but more than that, they provide a way to make the world make a little more sense when it can’t be escaped any longer.

So it’s okay to read what you enjoy, what makes you happy, or to become an expert in a chosen subset of literature. But to me, a reading life is not complete without a broader exploration. It’s problematic to go blindly choosing books, to be seen by my non-readerly friends and family as some sort of high and mighty well-read old soul because I finish 100 books a year. I can’t consider myself to have garnered insights from my reading unless and until I’ve actually read diversely. Explored new genres and read books by authors of different races, from different nations, from different walks of life. And this takes a conscious effort. If we go about our reading hoping that our choices will be color-blind we are sorely mistaken. Booksellers sell the books that people buy the most, that win awards, and stats on the race and gender of the authors that win awards are skewed.

But you’ve heard this before. The read diversely discussion has been going around for awhile on YouTube and, I’m sure, here in the blog community. (I am a spectacularly bad blogger in this sense–I watch a lot of YouTube, but don’t make videos, and I blog, but don’t read blogs all that regularly). I jumped in on it this past weekend when I watched this video:

Steve gets a bit angry in this video–and things get a little bit snippy in the comments of it as well–but he definitely makes a good point. Walk the walk. And I hadn’t been. I haven’t made grand promises about reading diversely, but I’ve been floating along in a little bubble of self-assurance. I’ve read some classics, some adult literature, I do okay on book categories on Jeopardy. I read nonfiction once in a while and I think critically about the very realistic themes in my fantasy novels. I am a smart, discerning reader, I thought. And I know I’ve read plenty of books by black people.

But when I finished Steve’s video, I was sitting on my couch, in full view of nearly all of my books, and so I could count them and prove it without even getting up off my ass. So I did. I thought reading a book by black person this month would be no problem, I’d just go to my 100+ TBR and grab one. Except not a single one is by a black person. There are two by Hispanic and Latino men and, to my knowledge, that is all. Okay, I thought, but I’ve read books by black people before. And I have. On my read shelves, which contain somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 books, I have Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and A Season of Migration to the North by Talib Salih. That’s it. So then, somewhat desperate, I thought back to the small collection of books I had to read in high school that are still at my parents’ house (because my younger brother took many of the same classes and needed them) and remembered Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Finally! Something by a woman of color! But that was all. And all of these books were read for school. Things Fall Apart and Their Eyes Were Watching God for AP English Lit in high school. From which I graduated in 2009, five and half years ago. We read Season of Migration to the North in the one literature class I took as an elective in college in the spring of my junior year, in 2012. Three years ago. I, for one, find that absolutely repulsive. Which got me off my ass and in the car and on the way to the bookstore where I bought books by the only black authors I could think of, the more famous ones, but it’s a place to start:

I read Home cover to cover on Sunday and can’t wait to dig into more Toni Morrison.

So that’s my call to action. Take a good hard look at why you read and what you’ve read and decide if you’re happy with it. If you are, that is great. But if not, be proactive about changing your habits and opening your eyes to all of the different perspectives that are out there. It really is up to you.

P.S. Here’s a small handful of videos and posts I’ve found interesting and/or helpful

A list of books by African-Americans, sorted by year:

Rincey Reads does what I just did but with pie charts!

Book Riot on why reading diversely (and why being attentive and proactive about it) is important:

A slightly different topic, but related. The problems that arise when white authors write black characters


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