I mentioned around January 1st that I’d made a resolution to read at least 12 books not written by white men. This resolution was to challenge me to hear other voices than the ones that I’m used to – I have a whole bookshelf for David Foster Wallace, and another one for White Men Named Jonathan Living In Brooklyn. I’m a white man, and I’ve found that defaulting to the familiar is all too easy for me (the J is for John).
So I thought, why not be intentional about opening up the playing field a bit? I’ve become aware of my tendency to limit myself to the familiar, so why not take that same awareness and focus it on changing up the pattern, and expose myself to writers and viewpoints that I might not have sought out with my blinders on?
Turns out, a lot of other folks are doing this as well. And some of those folks have found a way in which this well-intentioned exercise could in fact be counter-productive (and not for nothin’, at least one prominent female blogger has been threatened with misogynist language, rape, and death for intentionally diversifying her reading list). In Jezebel, Jia Tolentino raises the question of how selfish and self-centered this resolution is:
I get why you’d avoid reading 10:04 or what have you; I don’t understand why it’s ever more productive to say so than just to read something else and (omitting the part about your commitment to social justice) talk about that. Justification for obviously rewarding acts is always unnecessary, and in the case of reading “diverse” writers, the reward can be meaningfully deflated by the announcement of the act itself. The people most excited to say, “Uh, I’ve actually been reading a lot of Nigerian writers lately?” tend to be white people; the space taken up by being interested in one’s own Here’s Why I’m Only Reading X Minority Group project is often counterproductive to the point.
This is an excellent point, and she goes on to make a further excellent point, and that is that we should be reading authors because they’re great writers, not because they’re black, queer, Vietnamese, live in Queens, etc. She says that so many of us who make resolutions like these think ‘closer to “look how I good I am as a reader” than “look how well these people write.”’ These are important reminders for any privileged individual trying to work towards being an ally, changing the system, standing in solidarity, with folks who are less privileged: don’t make it about you.
And I needed this reminder. As I’ve only started to understand my place in this broken society as a white man, I need help and guidance and advice on how best to navigate it. And I will try to remember that as I write about the books I read this year (white male or no). And and, I’ll welcome feedback and well-intentioned criticism too.
But, I don’t agree with the argument that we just shouldn’t do these kinds of exercises, or more to the point, that we shouldn’t talk about our own experiences with them. I, for one, am just beginning to explore writing, and while I struggle all the time with how my voice as a straight white American male has and will have the privilege of drowning out other voices, I believe that’s a tension to be negotiated, not a reason to stop writing about things that are important to me. Tolentino writes toward the end of her piece:
…”if the Year of Reading Wokely is supposed to model a behavior that should be normalized—reading from a wide range of experiences, valuing what is under-represented—we might do well to understand that it’s already well within our power to normalize that behavior, which would not mean extensively discussing our reading habits or restricting them for self-improvement, but just purchasing, consuming, talking about the work.
We can do that. We already do that.”
It may be well within the power of us to normalize this, but it’s not at all within the awareness of most of us. And if we’re capable of focusing solely on the work, we by and large don’t. (We’re not even capable of reading job applications without bias.) Perhaps she does, and her peers who have been struggling with these issues longer than I, and way longer than many others. But I think that we need to talk about our own experiences in breaking down our own prejudices, because so many other folks could use to have their prejudices broken down too. And since we are limited by the familiar, a lot of the responsibility for breaking down the prejudices of white males falls on white males. Since we are more likely to identify with those of us who look like us, we can use that bias to help overcome that bias.
But as we do this, we must make sure we’re using our own experiences as a bridge across ignorance, and not an end in itself. In other words, my writing about diversifying my reading list should not end with how it’s affected me. Instead it should point beyond myself, to the value of those writers, not as names on a white man’s reading list, but as rich, thoughtful, talented artists in their own right. I needed that direction; I’m sure others do too. Let’s not forget we all come from somewhere.
So. Here’s my list so far. Recommendations welcome!
- Room, Emma Donoghue
- Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
- A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara
- This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein
- To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
- Another Country, James Baldwin
- Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (I know, I know)
- ??? What else should be on here?