Friday, January 9, 2015

On Reading, Writing & Flattening the Barriers

I believe that the thing that connects every writer who is interested in the truth, every writer who is determined to tell truly not just what it is in his own heart, but what he sees in the heart of experience, is that the emotional truth and felt life that he finds in the writing of a good story breaks down the walls between people, obliterates the assumptions and falsities in how we see the other.  Flattens the barriers of culture, and closes the divide between young and old. He knows that if the story is good, it will have this effect. And though he can never know whether or not it will find its way into the general mind, he hopes it is good enough to always have this effect for who ever may come upon it, wherever they may be. In any case, trying to be clear, and to be truthful, he partakes of the great miracle that defines all of us as human. 
-- Richard Bausch, "Why Literature Can Save Us"
2014  was the year of diversity awareness in the reading community.  (By "reading community," I mean those of us who do things as odd as read and write blogs on the subject.)  The #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement went from being little more than a Twitter hashtag and Tumblr feed to a slick, full-fledged 501(c)3 that closed out the year by bringing its fundraising total into the hundreds of thousands.  The Diversity on the Shelf challenge was held for the first time, getting readers, reviewers, and bloggers to commit to reading a minimum number of books by and/or about people of color.  Panels were heldstudy after study highlighted the reprehensible lack of representation of diversity within publishing houses, and too many thinkpieces to count were issued on the subject.  Basically, no discussion in the book world has been free of "diversity" this year, at least in the sense that the word was present.

Like most good liberal-minded people, I have publicly supported these efforts.  In college, I was the student who went straight to the reading list in the syllabus to make sure that at least one woman, one person of color, and one non-American (preferably non-Western) were to be handled during the semester.  Several years ago, I discovered a radical coloring book at the sorely-missed Food for Thought co-op bookstore in Amherst, Massachusetts, featuring everything from interracial families and same-gender parents to children using wheelchairs and undocumented farmworkers.  I had never given much thought to the power even the simplest books have in challenging assumptions and privileges, but finding that book was a pretty profound experience for me.  I always regret not buying it.

I digress.  My point is, I have evangelized for diversity in books for what feels like a long time, but this past year I felt more and more like a hypocrite.  That's because, in looking at my actual book piles and reading lists, I had to acknowledge that my behaviors are not reflecting my values.  Not only have I not been making a point to seek out diversity in my book selections, I haven't even accidentally been including many.  More embarrassingly, I have not gotten away from the dreaded historian curse of reading about people of color primarily in the context of them being oppressed, exploited, and exterminated.

Aside from the fact that I'm not exposing myself to the majority of human experience and am remaining stuck in my world of privilege, this intellectual isolationism also means that I'm denying myself the chance to write about and discuss those other works.  Those of us who write reviews, post on book discussion forums, join virtual reading groups, and run blogs like this pen millions of words every year about what we've been reading.  But do we ever stop to think about how homogeneous our reading is?  What new insight is our writing bringing to the table?  Can we use our time and talents in a way that is more meaningful?  Basically, what if book blogs talked less about the newest romance novels and more about using writing and literature to better understand things that matter?

In 2015, I want to be better.  I want my actions to reflect my values.  I am absolutely going to enjoy all kinds of reading this year, but if you see me slipping away from keeping things changed up, hold me accountable.  Flatten my barriers.

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