When the new year rolled around, it was time to look over what I had read in 2013. I went into that year with a goal of reading 52 books in 52 weeks. And while I knew for the bulk of the year that I was going to fail miserably at that goal, when I looked over my list, I realized that I had failed in another way.
One of the things that I love about books–and fiction, in particular–is that it offers a glimpse into someone else’s world. Even if that world isn’t real, a good story puts you into the mind of another human being and lets you experience their view of the world. Now scientists are beginning to report that literary fiction builds empathy. Those of us who enjoy literary fiction are wondering what took them so long to realize this.
I don’t regret reading the books that I did finish. I read some fantastic stories this year. But I realized that I missed an opportunity to expand my world view further. My greatest failing wasn’t falling short of my goal to read 52 books, it was that of the nearly 30 books on my list, only three were written by women. On top of that, only two were written by authors who were not white.
I think this is a problem, both as a reader and a writer. Stepping into someone else’s shoes for awhile is a great reason to read a book, but that experience is absolutely vital when learning how to write fiction. It would be silly to think that I could write compelling fiction without being able to imagine the world from someone else’s viewpoint.
I’m working on my first novel right now. I’m not going to go into much detail, but one of the main characters is a woman. And, truth be told, I’m having more difficultly with her than I do with the male characters I normally write (something else I’m working on). And while I don’t really think I’m struggling because of gender issues, every time I sit down to write a scene that features this character, in comes my nagging fear of turning her into a stereotype. The best thing I can do to quiet that doubt, I think, is to examine characters created by great female authors.
With all of that in mind, my new goal for 2014 is to expand my world view by reading as many books as I can by authors who are not white men. They won’t be completely excluded but, for the most part, the white men are going to remain on the shelf this year.
So far, I’m actually on pace for that 52 in 52 goal (a pace I am not likely to sustain). But, more importantly, I’ve begun to branch out a bit. After kicking off the year with “A Man Without a Country,” by Kurt Vonnegut (because I read it regularly and it can be finished during the course of a lazy weekend afternoon), I moved on to “Beloved,” by Toni Morrison and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” by Margaret Atwood. Both were terrific reads, and I may go into more detail about those reading experiences in a later blog post. Same for “Dream Lives of Butterflies,” by Jaimee Wriston Colbert, “This is How You Lose Her,” by Junot Díaz, and “Dear Life,” by Alice Munro.
I haven’t yet made a list of specific books but there are a number of authors that I plan to read for the first time. They include Zadie Smith, Virginia Woolf, Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison. “Beloved,” also guaranteed that Toni Morrison will appear in my reading list again some time in the future.
It’s too early to say what I’ll take away from this. Based on what I’ve read so far, I expect I will be learning a lot. And, if nothing else, it should be a great year of reading.
Feel free to leave any reading suggestions in the comments.