One day, as I was browsing through the stacks at my local library, I realized that all the books I was holding in my arms were kind of the same. I flipped through my past reads on Goodreads and realized that I only read approximately three types of books.
The first was the book equivalent of a chick-flick. They were modern stories about Western white women who muddled through careers and love and family with all the grace of a new born lamb and with all the charm of a puppy or kitten. You know the type: The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan, My Not So Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella, Normal People by Sally Rooney. The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman or Garden Spells by Sarah Allen Addison if I was feeling a little magical.
When my TBR stacks weren’t loaded down with that kind of book, it was buckling under the weight of a thousand YA fantasy/magical novels about white girls who looked average but were armed with wit and grit enough to save their respective worlds. The Illuminae Files by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, The Monsters of Verity by V. E. Schwab, Wicked Saints by Emily Duncan, the Grisha books by Leigh Bardugo.
The main part of my reading though was filled up with the types of books that people read in order to feel superior to other readers — you know, the books that people tell other people to read, the ones that populate “Read before You Die” lists, the ones that literature students brag about reading. Dickens, the Brontes, Austen, Emerson, Poe, Dumas, Christie, Tolkien — the ones who need no first name, even among non-readers.
I rebelled in my small way by focusing my energy on women, Shirley Jackson, Daphne du Maurier, Edith Wharton. I studied the Gothic and Romantic in college, so outside of it I still find myself interested in tangents and branches of that (The Gothic prides itself on being subversive, revolutionary, the underbelly of literature at the time — and it was, for white Europeans). I felt immense satisfaction in marking off titles from book lists of classics, feeling proud and intellectual because I read them even if I didn’t understand them or even like them.
A large part of my reading motivation came from what other people thought I should read. I went through lists left over from college, through the PBS Great American Read List, through whatever other lists that smart people thought the rest of us should read. When I was left to my own devices, when I wanted something quick and engaging, I reached for books with characters that looked like me, and usually those books were written by people who looked like me too.
I was thinking about this and I reached out to my mentor and friend Dr. Gayatri Sethi to talk about what I noticed. She’s always been a great thought-sparker for me, and I value her insights and opinions very much.
I wrote to her: “It’s so weird how I have to actively try to pick up nonwhite stories. So much deep-seated bias that I hold without thinking about it. Lot of unpacking to do there. One book at a time I guess! I learned to like poetry after years of avoiding it so I can learn be more comfortable reading stories about and by people different from me.”
“It’s a form of white privilege to normalize white stories as universal.”
I want to talk more and soon about white privilege in reading, but for now, I just want to briefly say that it is white privilege that we as white readers can pick up any book in a library and have good odds that the story and its author are like us.
That’s really the meat of this challenge for me. It’s about putting in the work with reading, digging up new stories, finding new voices — all of which minority readers have to do every day, in order to find stories that reflect their experiences. Dr. Sethi and I talked about how much she wanted to contribute to hosting this challenge, saying rightly that it cost her a lot of mental and emotional labor to curate lists like she does.
I never have to work to find stories that mirror my experiences. It’s made me a lazy and biased reader. It’s closed me off to a lot of voices and stories, and I want to work on changing how I approach book selection. There are more books than we have time to read — in your local library alone there are more books than you have time to read over your entire life. Think about all the stories that aren’t included in your library. If you are white, think about how much less time you would have to read (much less anything else) if you had to research and hunt down books that related to you and your life. The fact that you’ve probably never had to think about that is white privilege.
So that’s where this challenge is from. It’s built on a blind spot I’ve found, on a weakness and an oversight. I want to read with more intention and more thought, and I want to explore more of the world that I’ve gotten to in my real life. I’m thinking that the more diverse voices I read, the more far off places I travel to through novels, the more I learn about the world and the people in it, the more I’ll realize that we’re all more alike than we admit.
I hope you’ll join me on this world wide adventure, either in 2020 or in the next decade. I’ll be asking for recommendations and sharing my monthly picks on Instagram @abigailsbookself and posting about topics related to this challenge here as well as sharing reviews of the books I read each month for the challenge. This challenge is hosted in part with Dr. Sethi who is also on Instagram @desibookaunty. Give us a follow and let us know if you’re joining us! Happy reading!
The Challenge Wrap-ups
September: The Middle East
October: South Asia
November: East Asia