For some people, 2019 was a difficult year to get anything read. For others, such as myself, 2019 was a great year for reading. My year, as a reader, was made great by two things:
- I survived some difficult periods by retreating into books.
- I planned ahead to make sure I had interesting, well-chosen books to read when I was too upset or depressed or whatever to do anything but read.
Which is not to say that my plans always worked.
The big plan that didn’t work out as anticipated was to read more diverse work, both in the sense of reading authors who weren’t like me, and in the sense of reading more deeply in other genres than horror and mystery.
It was harder than I thought. Like, ridiculously so.
I realize this essay is going to alienate some people—that me, writing down whether or not I met my own reading goals on my own time without preaching about how other people should do the same—is going to alienate some people. Some people will be strongly tempted to contact me to tell me that none of this should matter, or that I’m overthinking things.
Let me state clearly here that it’s important to me, and that if you need to complain about people who think, you may be reading the wrong author.
In 2018, my goals were to get through several best-of lists in horror and crime fiction. It resulted in reading a lot of books that I hated, particularly in the horror genre, where aggressive, offense-intended sexism and racism are often the order of the day, mostly written by Dead White Guys from America and Great Britain. I feel that reading my way through those best-of lists was truly worthwhile (for example, reading 120 Days of Sodom in 2018 made me realize that most people who set out to be offensive are pikers in comparison), but I needed a palate cleanser this year.
My first pass, in early 2019, was to come up with a list of a hundred books that I wanted to read. I divided them into the following quarters:
- White Men Writing in English
- White Women Writing in English
- People of Color Writing in English
- Books in Translation
And I decided to keep an eye on several best-of lists as well. Lots of them: a reader-generated list of gothic fiction, NPR’s best-of horror list, the SF Masterworks and Fantasy Masterworks lists, and a list of early crime fiction selected by HRF Keating. Oh, and I was going to magically find time to read a lot of nonfiction somehow. And graphic novels. And new releases.
By June I had read fewer than a third of the books I had on my list, almost no nonfiction, almost no graphic novels, and no books written within, I don’t know, the last decade. I had read a hundred books (one of my superpowers is speed reading). Just not the ones I planned to read.
I tried again, wiping off the list the books I’d read and the books I’d started but couldn’t finish. Despite my plan, I mostly fell back to my Dead White Guys again, even when I was mostly skimming and hate-reading books to finish them.
(Side note: I decided I can’t read Tananarive Due’s books. She’s excellent, but her stories are about women who are ongoing victims of abusive narcissistic assholes and these women don’t recognize that’s what’s happening, and I finally decided I didn’t need to feel like screaming “Get out you fool” and twitching with PTSD for entire novels at a time. If that’s your sort of thing, I highly recommend them. But they can’t be on my list anymore.)
By November, it was clear that the same pattern was going to emerge: not a lot of nonfiction, graphic novels, or recent work, and a disproportionate amount of Dead White Guys. This is not to say that the books by the Dead White Guys were objectively—or even subjectively—worse than books by other types of people, just that, after a while, they get me in a rut.
For example, let’s take “Some asshole causes harm to the people around him, mostly written from the perspective of the asshole” as a plot. It’s a pretty common plot. (One famous example of this is The Shining.)
I read books featuring this plot:
- White Men/English: 30
- White Women/English: 9
- People of Color/English: 9
- Books in Translation: 9
The assholes didn’t have a specific gender. I didn’t count books where this was a subplot, just the main plot. It’s not that those books were necessarily good or bad, or that they rewarded or punished the asshole in question; it’s just that I got tired of playing “yes, yes, plot twist, the narrator is the main problem here, I got it.”
There are other ruts. This one in particular got on my nerves.
(Side note: At least one of those white men was a trans man, which made me slap my forehead and realize another area where I was falling down.)
This year, I read:
- White Men/English: 110
- White Women/English: 56
- People of Color/English: 31
- Books in Translation: 40
Which is lots better than I did in 2018. (There may be errors in counting here, but I’m not dedicated enough to debate them.)
The logic inherent in my categories is that, in the U.S., about two-thirds of us are white and non-Hispanic, and about a third of us aren’t, with about half and half men and women (and half of two-thirds is one third). I also just like to read books in translation, so I threw that in as another category, to turn my thirds into quarters: the math was easier.
I didn’t track LGBTQIA+ people, Jewish people, handicapped people, or a bunch of other things that I now kinda regret. The main thing I started with in 2018 was going, “I read mostly Dead White Dudes, and I’m getting tired of it.” Then, of course, once I started tracking numbers even after I decided to do something other than read mostly Dead White Dudes, there I was, still reading mostly white dudes, dead or otherwise, and reading too many “written from the perspective of an asshole” books.
I gave myself a budget to-be-read (TBR) pile of 30 books. A book a day is rather ambitious even for me, but I knew there would be a certain number of books that I started and didn’t want to finish or didn’t feel like reading that month after all, and I wanted some wiggle room.
I went through the house, my Kindle, my phone, and the books on my nightstand, and added those to my November list. Then I added the books I thought would come in at the library before December. Then I went, “This is already a disproportionate number of White Dudes.” Because it was.
So I filled out the rest of that list with other types of people.
November went okay.
- I read more nonfiction than I had been reading, although most of it was writer-related business books rather than the ones I had planned.
- Graphic novels: on track.
- Best-of lists: making less progress, but still some on each list.
- Proportions: 10 White Guys, 8 White Women, 4 People of Color, 3 Books in Translation. Still not great, but better.
December went even better.
- Nonfiction I fell down on, but did get some read. The books that I have on tap for nonfiction tend to be either in print, or ebooks that I bought. However, what I read first is books that are due back to the library, and books in ebook format (I can read on a Kindle after my spouse is asleep without keeping him up, but the lamp and page-turning sounds of paper bother him).
- Graphic novels: on track.
- Best-of lists: on track.
- Proportions: 6 White Guys, 5 White Women, 6 People of Color, 2 Books in Translation and 8 volumes of a graphic novel in translation.
Writing these numbers out feels surreal.
I’ve been trying to stop reading mostly Dead White Guys for a year now, and have made improvements but haven’t reached my goals yet, because apparently changing my reading habits is harder than it looks. A white woman, determined to change her reading habits and having the access to the books needed to do so, was unable to successfully do so in the course of a year.
Although she did make strides.
In case you missed a newsletter, here were my best books of 2019:
- January: Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad–and Surprising Good–About Feeling Special, by Craig Malkin (White Man).
- February: Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro (Person of Color).
- March: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson (Book in Translation).
- April: The Once and Future King, by T.H. White (White Man).
- May: Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, by Haruki Murakami (Book in Translation).
- June: H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald (White Woman).
- July: The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, edited by Jeff VanderMeer and Ann VanderMeer (Worldwide Anthology, edited by a White Guy and a White Woman, with the White Guy’s Name First, so I’m going with White Man: since that’s who gets credit for the book, when only one person does).
- August: The Land of Laughsby Jonathan Carroll (White Guy).
- September: A Man Lies Dreamingby Lavie Tidhar (I waffled on this but decided it counted as Person of Color, since Mr. Tidhar’s from Israel and didn’t slide into the assumptions I wanted to avoid).
- October: A Night in the Lonesome Octoberby Roger Zelazny (White Man).
- November: Quichotte, by Salman Rushdie (Person of Color).
- December: Mongrels, by Stephen Graham Jones (Person of Color). This was a difficult month. I read a lot of great books (in the month that I managed to stick closest to my goals).
Proportions: 5 White Men, 1 White Woman, 4 People of Color, 2 Books in Translation (with two fudges on the numbers; 4/1/3/2 if you leave out the fudges).
Disproportionately, the books that I liked (compared to the total number of books I read) were written by people of color. And three of them I wouldn’t have read if I hadn’t assigned myself the task of reading more people of color; they weren’t on best-of lists (Mongrels is on the NPR best-of horror list).
In the sense that my tastes have been broadened and my life enriched? This year was obviously a success. In the sense that I still read too many books with the same plot, ehhhh…better than 2018, at any rate.
My favorite book of the year? A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar. It was magnificent, and I wish it were being picked up for an HBO series or something. It brutally mocks Hitler, serves as an analysis of why pulp fiction was both good and horrible with a lovely homage, is packed with super-dry humor, and has one of the world’s perfect endings. Mwah!
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