Over the last few weeks, I’ve had something on my mind. It’s been there, in the back of my head, something I’ve been musing about, but a couple of recent events put it in the forefront. First, I’ve just completed a course of Global Perspectives in Missions and Ministry at the seminary where I take my master’s in theology classes. One of the themes of that class was the importance of listening to people of other cultures, really getting to know and understand them and working together as a team to solve problems. So I’ve been thinking about listening, particularly about listening to people who are from other cultures and backgrounds.
Then, Litlove posted this piece that discussed how men often don’t want to be seen reading books that look like they’re for women. And that got me thinking about how marketers design covers and about how society leads us to read certain books and ignore others. Good idea for a Sunday Salon, I thought.
And then the scandal regarding the whitewashing of the cover of Magic Under Glass broke. (For those of you who don’t know, Bloomsbury published a YA fantasy novel about a young woman of color but put a young white woman on the cover. See this Salon.com article for details. Bloomsbury has since pulled the book from distribution and is having a new edition produced with a different cover.) That scandal brought out some great discussion in the blogosphere about race, reading, and how we choose the books we read. I came across great posts by Aarti, Amy, Eva, Rachel, Rebecca and Vasilly, just to name a few. And I was provoked—in a good way.
First, a bit of background about me. I am a white, straight, middle-class woman from a rural working-class background. I grew up on a farm in Southwest Virginia and did not fly in an airplane until I was in my mid-20s and did not visit another country until I was in my mid-30s (unless you count Niagara Falls, Canada, which I don’t, because I could actually see the U.S. the whole time I was there). For me, books were the only way I could learn about other parts of the world, about people who weren’t like me. And my extensive reading has apparently paid off. Years ago, a friend who has lived all over the world called me one of her more worldly friends. (I say this not to pat myself on the back but to illustrate the powerful influence of reading.)
It’s a wonderful and amazing thing to find ourselves in books, and there are times when what I really want is a companion on the page that I can relate to. But for me, reading has always been about enlarging my world. Sometimes I read books by and about people who have nothing in common in me. Sometimes I read books where I expect that to be the case and soon discover that this person who seemed so alien at first is in fact a companion on the page. It’s a beautiful thing to realize.
Most of the time, the voices I seek out are voices from the past. I love old books, always have. C. S. Lewis explained the value of old books better than I ever could when he said,
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means old books.
I love this idea. Every period has its own blind spots, and when we read books by people from other times, we become better able to see our own blind spots. That’s why, as much as I love historical fiction, I generally prefer books written in the period, if I can find them.
Might not the same hold true for books by people from other races, nations, and cultures? I think so. And I think it also illustrates why it’s so important to read books by people of color and not just about them. Now I like to think that I read authors of many different races and nations. I’ve read Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, Marjane Satrapi, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri and many of the other usual suspects. In most cases, I’ve read and enjoyed one representative work and then moved on. And when I look at my overall reading, it’s overwhelming white, American, and European. Last year, I read only nine books (out of 118) by people of color, and none of the books in my massive TBR pile are by people of color. Not a single one (until yesterday, that is). So I have to ask myself, Am I missing opportunities to “correct the characteristic mistakes” of my own race and culture?
Yesterday I went to Books-a-Million, just to see if I could find some promising books by people of color, so I could add them to my TBR mix. The store had one of those irresistible “buy two, get one free” deals going, and I decided that if I could find three books by people of color, I would allow myself to break my usual book-purchasing rules and buy them. The store had two display cases full of books eligible for this deal and a few other books scattered around the store. I found only four by people of color.
To put this in perspective, the United States is 75 percent white. My guess is that there were roughly 50 books eligible for that deal, which means a deal that was representative of national demographics would have about 12 books by people of color. Now, my city is only 60 percent white, so a local bookstore with an offer representing local demographics might want to include 20 books.
Before you start railing against quotas, please understand that I am not advocating reading or publishing books by people of color just because of the author’s race. I’m merely offering this anecdote to show one way in which publishers and/or book-sellers might be subtely and entirely unintentionally pushing readers toward white authors. This also explains the importance of being intentional and actively seeking out the best writers of color we can find, buying their books, recommending them to friends, and helping redress the imbalance.
So that’s a lot of talk. And talk is good—talk is vital. It’s talk in the blogosphere that got Bloomsbury to change the cover of Magic Under Glass. But talk just isn’t enough. I decided I needed to do something. I thought about what would help me find authors traditionally underrepresented in libraries and bookshops—that would be recommendations from readers. I thought about where I get my reading ideas—that would be blogs. And I decided that I would love to have a way to collect all those reviews of books by POC authors in one place. I didn’t want a challenge because challenges stress me out. And I didn’t want to add lots of specialty blogs to my reader. What I wanted was a clearinghouse—a one-stop shop. So I built one. And now I’m sharing it with you and inviting you to help me furnish it.
Diversify Your Reading is a blog that will catalog reviews of books by underrepresented authors. Bloggers can contribute links to their reviews in the comments sections of relevant posts (organized by nationality, ethnic group, sexuality, and more), and the site editors (currently me, Jenny, Eva, and Nymeth—although we’d love more help) will add those reviews to the posts as time allows. Thanks to RSS feeds and options to subscribe to comments by e-mail, interested readers can have review links sent to them as they are added to the comments. As I’m scheduling this post, the site only includes reviews from Eva, Nymeth, Jenny, and me. So my blogging friends, please take a look at your past posts and see what you can add. I’d love to be able to announce next week that every category has at least one review. So go help me make it so.