I’m not one for making New Year resolutions – partly because I believe one can resolve to do something differently at any time, and partly because I’m quite bad at keeping my resolutions in the first place.
But I must admit, there is an allure this time of the year, when the upcoming 12 months seem to bloom with possibility. And perhaps even better, with time – enough time to work, play, and read many, many books (perhaps even enough to finally reach the bottom of that “to read” stack piled beside your bed). So one does tend to get swept along in this swirl of good intentions.
At least when it comes to reading, there is one surefire way to make sure I stick to my resolutions: this column. When I first began writing it in 2015, it was partly with the (secret) intention of forcing myself to read more, particularly the books that I wouldn’t otherwise have picked on my own. Selecting the titles out of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die volume seemed like a convenient way to start with a list of “greats”, so to speak.
In the four years since, I’ve managed to discover books and authors that I’d never have on my own, while also revisiting some beloved titles along the way. But one shortcoming of this approach is that it amplifies the almost-unconscious bias most of us English-language readers have – which is to focus on books and authors largely from a Western and male perspective. Not quite the “dead white men classics”, though a large number of the books do seem to be by white men.
Some of this is a matter of availability. The world of publishing, particularly in English, has been open to white men for so much longer than anyone else that it isn’t surprising that any list of must-reads is so highly populated by them.
But some of it is just conditioning. Growing up, the authors who were exalted by the adults around me included the likes of Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck. So authors like them come easily to the mind, and their writings coil familiarly into our brains. There is a lot of pleasure in that.
But there is a very different sort of pleasure to be had when we do choose to move beyond this familiarity, to explore and confront ourselves with words and worlds that are different. Trying to read more diverse books – by writers who aren’t confined to an American/European perspective – is far more than yet another politically-correct movement. If the purpose of fiction is to take us into others’ stories and lives, we have everything to gain from opening ourselves up to more stories, more lives; and perhaps along the way, we’ll also find a story that we belong to as well.
So for 2019, and for this column, I do have one resolution: to focus on more diverse books. This will largely mean no dead, white, male authors, but it will also mean writers from outside of the typical literary circle of Europe and America. There will be no hard and fast rules, because reading is supposed to be about pleasure and not a regime. But the aim will be, primarily, to open up my reading list to include much more of the world, and to share that with you.
Here’s wishing you a very Happy New Year, with lots of books to bring you joy!