Every few months or so, some list comes out of books that are must-reads for men or women or other sentient life forms. It makes me angry, but then that is part of my normal state of being. I grew up spoon-fed from a porridge bowl of “classics” written by men with a dollop of writing by women (usually containing more than a dash of Austen). The porridge was very white.
I’ve become a voracious, indiscriminate reader. I don’t read genres or genders or even bodies of work by single authors. I like ideas, stories, and turns of phrase more than I like stylistic, experimental I-don’t-have-to-use-punctuation nonsense. I like learning about people who have lives entirely different than my own. But one of the things I find frustrating are my own prejudices. My reading choices are blighted by internalized misogyny and American exceptionalism and European myopia.
I’ve been choking down Joyce, Dostoyevsky, Conrad and host of other “classic”writers and it finally hit me again this morning, while wading through my latest reading effort, Infinite Jest. I’m tired of the literary classic circle jerk. The constant chattering about the same ten books or writers. The same books showing up over and over again on these you’re-a-dumbass-if-you-don’t-read-this lists. Statistically it is impossible, with the millions of books out there, that these writers are the end-all, be-all.
I’ve always made a conscientious effort to read outside my life experience, but lately it’s become a hunger. I read biology texts and war epics. I read sci-fi and history and domestic drama. Over the last year, I’ve been focusing on reading international authors and have set a goal to read two books from each of the 196 countries (I’m counting Taiwan). I don’t know how long it will take me, but after reading Weep Not, Child by Kenyan writer
Why have I limited myself? Why have I read Faulkner and Dickens and Mailer and failed to read Doris Lessing or Grace Ogot or Ismael Kadare? In a world teeming with good stories and good writing, maybe it’s easier to take the word of a reviewer or a college professor. Maybe with our limited time, we reach for that which has been dog-eared and lauded in the hopes of guaranteed pleasure.
Reading, like most things we humans do, is personal. Why, when and how we do it impacts what we choose to read. For me, it comes down to needing my world, my little white American middle class lady suburban world, to be bigger. I read less for escapism and more for different perspectives and experiences. I read for the lyricism of words and the gift of storytelling. I read to expand my imagination.
As a writer, I read literary giants (fee-fi-fo-fum) to understand literary allusion, to gain some writing insight, and to know what is happening in the literary world. But the giants have been overshadowing a growing cadre of diverse writers. Despite all the doom and gloom about publishing and the state of literary attention spans, I think it’s an exciting time to be a reader and a writer. The world is ours for the reading.
What have you read lately that has been outside of your experience?
Great Resources for Expanding Your Reading: