Diversity in Reading

Larry, at OF Blog of the Fallen, has challenged other blogs to write about the diversity of their reading habits. Few blogs have taken up the cudgel, so far as I’ve seen. I suspect that’s because few of us, me included, can really hold our heads up when we closely examine our reading habits, because few of us read far beyond our own culture. I have a list of everything I’ve read back to 2003, and I was dismayed (but not surprised) to see how many of the authors I’ve read have been American or British, and how predominantly white they are.

It makes me even happier that I’d already decided to spend the summer reading literature in translation. I already have a pile of 19 books pulled from our bulging shelves awaiting June, and I’m sure I’ll be adding to the pile in order to give myself a choice. (I don’t really expect that I’ll be able to read everything I put on the pile – I’m not a fast reader, just a constant one.) I’m sticking with contemporary works, rather than the classics. (It’s true, I’ve yet to read Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, Flaubert or Balzac, but now is not the time. I’ll do a classics project some other season.) If you have any suggestions, I would very much welcome them.

Now, without further ado, to Larry’s challenge. I’m happy I was able to come up with something in response to each query.

1. Name the last book by a female author that you've read.

Ex Cathedra by Rebecca Maines. Before that, Atmospheric Disturbances: A Novel by Rivka Galchen, which I reviewed here. Right now I’m reading Black Ships by Jo Graham and Tales of Pain and Wonder by Caitlin R. Kiernan. This one’s never a problem for me. It’s not that I seek out books by women; it’s just that stories by women tend to appeal to me. Is that because I’m a woman myself? I’ve never quite figured that out.

2. Name the last book by an African or African-American author that you've read.

In order to answer this question properly, I’d have to research the race of the authors of a number of books I’ve read recently, because I have no idea of their race. I suspect, however, that as is usually the case (unfortunately), if race isn’t mentioned, it’s because the author is white. Which means I have to look back to last year’s read of I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Conde for my last read by black writer, and she is Caribbean rather than African or African-American. Before that – well, unless I’ve missed someone, I’m afraid I’m all the way back in 2003 with Stephen Barnes’s Lion's Blood. I’m sure I’m missing lots of good stuff, and this question has been a goad: I now have Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong’o on hold at the library.

3. Name one from a Latino/a author.

Borges and the Eternal Orangutans by Luis Fernando Verissimo. Very strange and wonderful little book in which Jorge Luis Borges appears as a character. This was part of my “short novel a day in February” project, and I’m glad that project got me to finally read this novel, which has been on my shelves for a while now. One of my favorite novels of last year was The Art of Murder by Jose Carlos Somoza, and I want to read the rest of his work available in English this year. Roberto Bolano’s 2666: A Novel is on the horizon as part of my upcoming summer project of reading works in translation, as is at least one novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Mario Vargas Llosa.

4. How about one from an Asian country or Asian-American?

In 2007, I read American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, but I must say I’m startled to find I had to go back that far. Good thing I have Kobo Abe’s The Face of Another on the pile for that summer reading project.

5. What about a GLBT writer?

Caitlin Kiernan is gay, and I’m reading her right now. I also read Doris Grumbach’s Fifty Days of Solitude during my February project, and she is a lesbian as well. As with race, there are a number of authors I’ve read as to whose sexuality I have no clue whatsoever.

6. Why not name an Israeli/Arab/Turk/Persian writer, if you're feeling lucky?

Last year I read The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine, which I enjoyed tremendously; I wish it had been more widely read. I thought it one of the best books I read in 2008. In 2007, I read The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, which I found profoundly unsettling; it’s another book I wish more people had read and discussed. I reviewed it here. On my summer reading list I have a brick of a book: The Adventures of Amir Hamza, to which I am greatly looking forward. Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red is also on that pile.

7. Any other "marginalized" authors you've read lately?

The best I can do here is to note a Tibetan author I’ve read just recently, Jamyang Norbu, even though the book itself is essentially frivolous: The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes. According to the cover of the book, Norbu is one of Tibet’s foremost writers at work today. In 2000, he received the Crossword Award for English Fiction, India’s equivalent of the Booker Prize, for this book. I plan to review it soon.

An interesting challenge, this. I don’t think that political correctness should guide one’s reading choices, but I do think that those who ignore diversity in choosing what they read miss out on exciting reading. Reading, after all, is a way of exploring what one can never truly know for oneself. I can never know what it is like to be a gay man, but I can get a glimpse into that condition by reading about it. I will never know what it was like to be an Arab living in New York on September 12, 2001, but Mohsin Hamid chilled me by giving me an idea of it. I don’t know the folklore of Persia, but I’m looking forward to learning it. Those of us who read should take advantage of this precious gift we’ve been given in our desire to gobble up words and stories. Those of us who read science fiction and fantasy, it would seem, should desire to read of foreign cultures even more than those who read principally mainstream fiction, for isn’t the foreign precisely what we’re after? We can explore right here on earth!

I will never, ever, get over what a precious gift books are. What a way to learn, to grow, to understand, to communicate, and all with the greatest of pleasure!