This year I tried my very best to diversify my reading list.
I realized at some point last year that my bookshelf wasn’t exactly the poster child of diversity. When looking at most of the books I owned, the vast majority of them were written by men. That didn’t exactly surprise me. I’m a man, so books written from a male perspective would probably be easier for me to find relatable. Then again, I realized what I was also missing out on. Female voices.
There’s no escaping the fact that there are so many challenges that women face that men are completely insulated from. The world is far less safer for women. Workplace discrimination is a very real problem. So is being objectified for physical appearance. I don’t really think there’s a way for us guys to ever fully empathize, but I do think listening helps. And reading is a part of that. It’s not even like I spent a year reading feminist manifestos, simple novels and memoirs were in their own way eye opening enough.
By not reading as many women in the past, I was missing out on some great voices, and more opportunities to expand my way of seeing the world. Plus… Harry Potter, The Tiger’s Wife, The Poisonwood Bible… some of my favorite things ever had female authors!
Oh, and while I was at it, I decided to see if I could keep my choice of books diverse in terms of color as well. I wanted to pay attention and make sure I wasn’t only reading from white authors. Again, you’ll never fully understand what the world looks like, and all the challenges it presents, to a person of a different race or gender. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do everything you can to understand as much as possible for the sake of loving your neighbor.
So here’s what I decided to do throughout 2015– I would make sure I read at least as many female authors as male authors, and at least as many authors of color as white authors. This, at least, applied to all the books I read for fun… an amount that’s gotten a lot smaller since grad school began. My list of books I want to read grows at a faster rate than I can read, so I rarely read books I dislike. And this year, with a much more diverse selection… man did I read some good books!
Here are a few things I learned/observed/wondered:
1. Why was it so hard to fill up my list with women of color?
It wasn’t too hard to read more women when I tried to do so intentionally. At first I thought of female authors I already liked, and figured I could always read more of their books… Barbara Kingsolver… Marilynne Robinson… I ended up doing very little of that and discovered more new authors I loved like Anne Patchett. But it was early summer when I realized I hadn’t read much by women of color. Just for kicks, I scanned my Amazon recommendations, and of the hordes of books they recommended, Celeste Ng was the only non-white, female author. I also didn’t have much trouble reading male authors of various racial/ethnic backgrounds. I guess this is a good case of intersectionality issues, huh?
2. Is it possible to write about race or gender issues without sounding like an eternal academic?
Characters in Americanah and Everything I Never Told You actually are academics, so I suppose it’s believable, but is there another way to strike up these important conversations? Speaking of terms like intersectionality, it seems like half of my Facebook friends are interested in explaining concepts related to inequality with the most up-to-date scholarly terms, while the rest of the population feels like they’re being spoken to in Mandarin. Obviously I place a high value on understanding the lived experiences of other perspectives, otherwise I wouldn’t have taken on such a quest, but I know that being lectured at is a turn-off to most people, and I’d rather people not be turned off from important conversations about how to make the world a little more equal.
3. Why must bookstores market many books written by women just to women?
I’ll be in Barnes & Nobles, and I’ll see a little shelf labeled “Gifts for Women” and I’ll see fantastic authors there like Barbara Kingsolver or Ann Patchett, and I’ll think, hey, I like those books! And I don’t know if this is the publisher’s marketing choice or the bookstore’s, but I feel like this contributes to why I’ve read disproportionately from male authors in the past. I understand the value of having a target audience, but most male authors are broadly advertised to all readers even though women statistically read more than men.
4. I read very little from the “spiritual/theology” genre this year.
Perhaps it’s because my 9-to-5 is so academically oriented that I connect with God more these days through things that are directly engaging than analytical, a.k.a., I get more of a spiritual experience via well written fiction. In the future, I’d love to read more from the likes of Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, however this year was somewhat of an unintentional year off. Perhaps that’s due to the fact that a lot of the published books of this nature are written by white males. It’s an imbalance I wish didn’t exist in this genre of all places.
5. Wow, I read a lot about people like me.
Even during the year where I tried to diversify things. How so? In seven of these books, the main protagonists are academics. In four, they are on the front lines of a major human rights issue. Five have heavy themes of travel.
All the books I read this year, ranked:
1. The Invisible Girls by Sarah Thebarge
This was my favorite discovery… Thebarge writes in my style, only way better! A personal narrative coupled with the pursuit of justice, overcoming struggles, flashbacks from the past, and thoughts about God and how it all fits together. This book covers her fight with breast cancer and her relationship with a Somalian refugee family and is pretty much amazing.
2. The Girl in the Picture by Denise Chong
I’ve raved about it on the podcast and the blog, and I’ll do it again. It has the eye for detail of Unbroken coupled with its penchant for telling a compelling individual’s story over the course of life. This biography of Kim Phuc, the Vietnam War’s “napalm girl” does storytelling justice to an incredible life.
3. A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins
I love most stories that entail a journey. When the journey is an ambitious and unconventional one… all the better! This is the travel journal that relaunched the genre back in the seventies and it was a perfect thrift store dollar well spent!
4. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseni
This book definitely wow’ed me. The way this story unfolds like a relay race of characters passing the baton of its narrative through generations as the hints of a children’s tale are whispered all throughout is astounding.
5. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Appropriate name for this book? It wasn’t so much the story or the characters or the setting that mesmerized me, I was just completely impressed by Patchett’s truly captivating writing.
6. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
Not completely done with this book yet, but I absolutely love Ishiguro and this book is a great example of why. It’s a pretty bold departure from his established niche.
7. A Path Appears by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn
This was an in-depth look at different ways people around the world are creating opportunities for others, and it’s told in the way only Kristoff and WuDunn can tell it, with brilliant vignettes, well informed cases, and so on.
8. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
This was an incredible read, starting in the middle, with a family tragedy, and exploring all the events leading up to it, and stemming from it. Of all the books I’ve read this year, by far the best character development.
9. Under the Same Sky by Joseph Kim
My buddy Joseph doesn’t dress up his story of escaping North Korea one bit, he just tells it with brutal honesty. Ultimately, that’s the more powerful way to do it.
10. Forever the Road by Anthony St. Clair
I’ve never read many fantasy novels, but if more of them are like this one, I will. I met Anthony at a local author’s event, and I discovered we shared an interest in craft beer and travel, two of the big themes in this book. Set in a traveler’s pub in a fictional Indian city, this story is just bizarre yet engaging enough to have kept me deeply entertained.
11. The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
Sweet and sad in equal parts. Elizabeth Alexander tells the story of her marriage, her husband’s death, and finding life afterwards. It’s simple and beautiful.
12. Thrive by Ariana Huffington
This is Huffington’s manifesto about getting more rest, living with more wonder, having a life outside of work, and taking care of your soul. The whole time I read it, my insides gave it a loud “amen!”
13. This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage by Anne Patchett
I liked State of Wonder so much that I had to pick up some more Anne Patchett as quickly as possible. This was a short story collection that was a complete joy to read.
14. The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Was this the year I learned how to appreciate a good collection of short stories? I know I really liked what I read from Jhumpa Lahiri. Each of the ones in the Interpreter of Maladies was so rich and colorful.
15. The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan
A fantastic writer– probably the only one on this list younger than me– who met a tragic and untimely end a year ago. She left us with the gift of her writing, which heavily inspired me to tighten up my own.
16. Scary Close by Donald Miller
I liked it! I probably would’ve liked it even more if I hadn’t read 60% of it in the form of Donald Miller’s blog posts before it came out.
17. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
What a brutal book! Probably the most hard core of any on this list. I’ll strangely always associate the Dominican Republic with the very weird mix of my honeymoon, baseball players, and Junot Diaz.
18. Home by Marilynne Robinson
Another good one by Mrs. Robinson! I wasn’t quite as attached to this one as I was to Gilead, probably because John Boughton is as difficult to sympathize with as Ames was charming. Plus, the letter-writing style of storytelling was a large part of Gilead’s charm
19. When Waters Whisper by Dan Daly
Dan, you’ve got talent! It’s weird ranking a friend’s book, especially when it’s on a lower end of the list, but make no mistake, this list is predominantly four star books in my opinion. When you’re ranked two notches above a Murakami book, you’re doing it right.
20. Trail of Crumbs by Kim Sunée
Kim Sunée’s memoir started off with a lot of promise… following her life from Seoul to New Orleans to France. I didn’t expect it to linger in France as long as it did, though. However, this book introduced me to the very best red beans and rice recipe I have.
21. Global Soul by Pico Iyer
Pico Iyer is one of my favorite thinkers, and his TED Talk is one of my all time favorites. That said, I expected a bit more from my first time reading him. A running theme, a subtle narrative, anything to make sense of all the times he finds himself at a mall/airport/stadium and starts listing all the countries where the people around him are from.
22. A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
This book had some real intriguing moments where I was genuinely taken by its mystery. As a whole, though, it got too weird and confusing, and I don’t think I cared about the character enough to want him to succeed.
23. A Country at War With Itself by Anthony Altbeker
It was well written, especially for a somewhat academic book. It was just unfortunately about a subject I wish didn’t exist- the violence epidemic in South Africa, and that’s why this is ranked so low.
24. NW by Zadie Smith
I wish I had gone with White Teeth as my introduction to Zadie Smith. This book was written so many different ways… literally. Smith’s creativity with this one was extremely ambitious. So ambitious it became difficult to follow and made it hard for me to attach to her characters.