Like I said last week, I have been doing a lot of reading lately. Below is a list of all the books I have read in the last year. I made a list not only to share my reading habits but also to hold myself accountable to continue reading. My new year’s resolution this year was to read more books, and I think I have achieved that!
Some of them are review copies I received from publishers for free, while others are older books that I reread because of their relevance.
I read a lot of great books this year. They were thought-provoking, educational and downright fascinating! Some of them are review copies I received from publishers for free, but I never let that influence my opinions of the book. Most of them are older books, but are still relevant.
If you missed any of my book reviews and literary discussions, here are the links to them.
One of my new year’s resolutions for 2016 is to read even more books and review them here. There will be a mix of new and older books. I like re-reading older, classic books because they are still so relevant to many social and political conversations we have today. I have a bookcase and a Kindle full of books I just haven’t gotten around to reading, but I will do better in the new year. Stay tuned!
A couple of weeks ago I had a really interesting conversation with my friends Linda and Reginald about the need to have more books in K-12 schools representing diverse authors and perspectives. This talk was spurred on by a recent article by science fiction writer K. Tempest Bradford who challenged readers to stop reading books written by heterosexual, cisgendered white males for a year. (FYI – cisgendered means someone who psychologically matches the gender they were assigned to at birth, as opposed to transgendered. It’s a new term to me too!).
Bradford says she grew tired of reading other science fiction in mainstream magazines that were mostly written by straight, white guys. So she took on the challenge to only read works by women, people of color and LGBT writers for one year. After the year-long “sabbatical,” Bradford said that “cutting that one demographic out of [her] reading list greatly improved [her] enjoyment of reading short stories” and that she now has “a new understanding of what kind of fiction [she would] enjoy most, what kind of writers are likely to write it, and how different the speculative fiction landscape looks when you adjust the parallax.”
Bradford is not the only one who took on this radical way of reading books. Australian writer Sunili Govinnage also took the challenge herself to only read books by writers of color, and then realized “just how white [her] reading world was.”
Now back to my discussion, my friend Linda is a half-white, half-Puerto Rican high school English teacher and a mother of a nine-year-old daughter, and my other friend Reginald is a gay, black man from Trinidad who works in the adolescent book publishing industry. As you already know, I am a writer who runs a digital imprint, do advocacy for my local public library and has worked in a multicultural bookstore before. The three of us are in total agreement that schools should have reading lists that represent diverse writers. Linda likes the position Bradford and Govinnage take on multicultural school reading and would like to see more books by writers of many marginalized backgrounds in high schools. She says she also encourages her daughter to read diverse literature.
“I think my school district does an so-so job with multicultural writers, but their ideas of ‘multicultural’ is reading Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes during black history month,” Linda said. “I am tired of teaching mostly about white guy writers. Everyone knows who Mark Twain and Shakespeare are, but Esmeralda Santiago, Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri and Octavia Butler are great writers too who need more attention and are more contemporary. I would like my school to have more required reading lists to include other people of color, even lesser known writers, and writers with disabilities.”
Based on his 12 years in the publishing industry, Reginald said that it is still hard to increase the number of diverse writers in schools and in bookstores in general. He said many schools have reading curricula that are decades old and don’t reflect the changing racial demographics in America today. This has mostly to do with the lack of people representing marginalized groups in positions of power in both school districts and publishing houses to make decisions about making more diverse literature available to students and readers of all ages for that matter. He also said that some school districts find it easier to stick to “tried and tested” known authors, which are usually dead white guys and occasionally diverse writers like Maya Angelou and Ralph Ellison, because it is easier to teach and cheaper to buy mass market copies of Huckleberry Finn or The Great Gatsby than a lesser known book, which is usually written by a marginalized writer.
However, Reginald had an even more radical take on diverse reading that even Linda and I were thinking: “Schools should put a moratorium on dead, straight, white guys, at least at the high school level. High school is great time to expose students to diverse ideas and views, since teenagers are beginning to develop their own identities and perspectives.”
As for his own reading habits: “I don’t read books by white guys anymore. Those books don’t reflect my life, my color, my culture, my masculinity or my sexuality.”
Reginald said he likes reading James Baldwin, Thomas Glave and E. Lynn Harris. Linda said she had similar reading habits. “I only seek out books by black, Asian and Latino writers. Their experiences reflect my own experiences as a person of color.”
I understood where they were both coming from, but I was actually kind of shocked by the fact that a school teacher and a book publishing executive would take such an extreme, and possibly narrow-minded view on literature.
So what do I think about this matter?
I like reading books by all kinds of authors – black, Asian, Latino, Middle-Eastern, LGBT, disabled, women, men, political, apolitical, religious, atheist, and, yeah, even some dead, straight, cisgendered white guys! While I enjoy reading books by people who I have a shared background with, reading to me for the most part is more about learning about other people’s experiences and perspectives. In order to be a well-rounded person in today’s society, you have to understand everyone’s perspective, even if it offends or scares you sometimes. That is how we evolve as a people.
If you have been following my writings for a while, you know that I like to read biographies and books about politics and history, and I write long, exhaustive essays about them. I like learning about how other people think and how their thinking shapes society. Two of my favorite writers are Upton Sinclair and Ernest Hemingway – two dead, straight, cisgendered, white guys. I am also a big fan of Richard Wright not just because he is black, but also because he is a great storyteller. Although he is best known for his racially-charged fiction work, I actually prefer his non-fiction travel writing like Pagan Spain, Black Power and The Color Curtain, which I wrote about last week.
Currently, I am rereading (yeah, because rereading is fundamental) The Politics of Change by Michael Manley, the charismatic former prime minister of Jamaica. Obama’s recent trip to the Caribbean to meet with CARICOM sparked my interest in reading Manley’s most influential work again. I didn’t read it just because he is black and Jamaican like me; I read it because he has interesting views on development economics and social policy.
As far as schools are concerned, yes, more diverse authors and perspectives need to be added to reading lists, but don’t cut out the white dudes. Everyone’s perspective should be welcomed at the table of ideas.
But maybe I’m wrong here.
If Linda and Reginald feel this way, there must be others. Please leave a comment below or email me about your reading habits. Does the author’s background influence if you will read their book? What are you reading now and why?
British author Zadie Smith became an instant literary success upon the publication of her first book White Teeth in 2000. The novel is a semi-autobiographical tale about living in London’s new multicultural landscape. Many of her subsequent books including her latest work NW examine the intersection of race, class and identity. In the 13 years since White Teeth’s publication, racial politics and the publishing world have evolved tremendously. Recently, she came to Boston to discuss life in Obama’s America and why writing online is the new normal.
Smith has been a tenured creative writing professor at New York University for the last three years. It was announced last year that her third book On Beauty will be adapted into a film and the BBC film adaptation of White Teeth has finally been put out on DVD and online streaming formats. The Internet and media have made seismic shifts in the way the written word is shared with readers.
Like many of her contemporaries, Smith contemplates why she should continue to write in the digital age. Writers not only have to contend with book reviewers at major newspapers and magazines, but also with social media critics, as well as have to fight copyright infringement to protect their work online. She says today there is no difference between fake and real writers, as anyone now can be considered a published writer with the click of a mouse.
“Some might say it is harder to write now than it was years ago,” Smith said. “How will writers be paid online? I have no idea.”
Maybe a culture tax she suggested.
However, she also says that the Web can be a great place for writers too. She spends a lot of time reading blogs, and not just literary blogs, but a lot of the “trashy blogs” the rest of us read. Writing online has also created a new intimacy with her readers that has helped inform her writing. But she is still a fan of the printed, written word. Smith says she owns over 10,000 books by authors ranging from Vladimir Nabokov to Zora Neale Hurston to Jean-Paul Sartre. While many of the books are used as teaching aides, she also enjoys casual reading.
Smith never expected to become a writer, but has been an avid reader since she was a child. She seriously considered becoming an actress at one point, but writing eventually became her true calling while attending Cambridge. The only real writing training she had came from reading other books and having her work critiqued by her classmates. Smith only wrote three and a half essays while in university, but those essays became the impetus for White Teeth.
While a great deal of that book came out of many hours of research at libraries, White Teeth is based on many aspects of her own life. Born in North London to a black Jamaican mother and white British father, identity politics is part of her everyday life.
Smith said before a crowd Wednesday night at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts that she has many identities including being a liberal, feminist, black woman and British.
She also identifies with President Barack Obama’s multicultural background and his gift of mimicry. Smith wrote this about Obama in 2008:
“Obama can do young Jewish male, black old lady from the South Side, white woman from Kansas, Kenyan elders, white Harvard nerds, black Columbia nerds, activist women, churchmen, security guards, bank tellers, and even a British man called Mr. Wilkerson, who on a starry night on safari says credibly British things like: ‘I believe that’s the Milky Way.’ This new president doesn’t just speak for his people. He can speak them.”
Smith says that she didn’t watch Obama’s second inauguration, as she doesn’t own a television and she is not into the “pomp and circumstance” of such occasions. But she was pleased Obama mentioned climate change in his inaugural speech, since she lives at the tip of Manhattan – ground zero for Hurricane Sandy.
As for her other identity as a writer, she will continue to do that, even as the Internet reinvents content distribution.