What Are You Reading? Why Does it Matter?

What are you reading (for fun)?

Earlier this month, Publishers Weekly published it’s “Best Books of 2009” list. All 10 of the authors are men. All but 2 of the authors are white and are from Western nations. The magazine noticed the gendered-nature of the list but stuck by their decisions. Feminist organizations responded negatively to the list, and Women in Letters and Literary Arts (WILLA), published their own list of great literary works by women in 2009.

Reading about the inequality of the Publishers Weekly list made me want to look at the books I’m currently reading, and look to see if I have a gendered or racialized tendancies in what I chose to read for fun (academic books are excluded from this list). I have the tendency to read a ton of books at one time, so, this should work fairly well. I’m including reviews and descriptions of the books I’m reading as well, just for fun.

1. Club Dead by Charlaine Harris
Harris is a white woman from Arkansas. (1951-present)
Booklist Review:

Sookie Stackhouse is having man trouble. Her vampire boyfriend, Bill, has been distant and inattentive lately. Then he announces that he is going on a business trip, which clearly is more than it seems. After a werewolf tries to abduct Sookie at work, Bill’s boss, Eric, tells her that Bill fell under the sway of his–Bill’s, that is–ex, a sexy vamp named Lorena, and has been kidnapped. Eric wants Sookie’s help in getting Bill back, and despite her hurt over Bill’s betrayal, Sookie agrees to go to Jackson, Mississippi, to find her wayward lover. Eric has persuaded Alcide, a dashing werewolf, to get Sookie access to Josephine’s, aka Club Dead, the local hangout of Jackson’s supernatural element. In between dodging kidnappers, the advances of amorous Eric, and her growing feelings for Alcide, Sookie has to find out who kidnapped Bill and figure out a way to rescue him. With some droll touches–Elvis, now a vampire, is Sookie’s faithful guard —Club Dead is ideal for readers who like their vampire fiction light, humorous, and fast-paced.

2. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Larsson was a white Swedish journalist. (1954-2004)
Amason.com Review:

Once you start The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, there’s no turning back. This debut thriller–the first in a trilogy from the late Stieg Larsson–is a serious page-turner rivaling the best of Charlie Huston and Michael Connelly. Mikael Blomkvist, a once-respected financial journalist, watches his professional life rapidly crumble around him. Prospects appear bleak until an unexpected (and unsettling) offer to resurrect his name is extended by an old-school titan of Swedish industry. The catch–and there’s always a catch–is that Blomkvist must first spend a year researching a mysterious disappearance that has remained unsolved for nearly four decades. With few other options, he accepts and enlists the help of investigator Lisbeth Salander, a misunderstood genius with a cache of authority issues. Little is as it seems in Larsson’s novel, but there is at least one constant: you really don’t want to mess with the girl with the dragon tattoo.

3. Northanger Abby by Jane Austen

Austen was a white woman from from England. (1775-1817)
Amazon.com Product Description:

Northanger Abbey is both a perfectly aimed literary parody and a withering satire of the commercial aspects of marriage among the English gentry at the turn of the nineteenth century. But most of all, it is the story of the initiation into life of its naïve but sweetly appealing heroine, Catherine Morland, a willing victim of the contemporary craze for Gothic literature who is determined to see herself as the heroine of a dark and thrilling romance. When Catherine is invited to Northanger Abbey, the grand though forbidding ancestral seat of her suitor, Henry Tilney, she finds herself embroiled in a real drama of misapprehension, mistreatment, and mortification, until common sense and humor—and a crucial clarification of Catherine’s financial status—puts all to right. Written in 1798 but not published until after Austen’s death in 1817, Northanger Abbey is characteristically clearheaded and strong, and infinitely subtle in its comedy.

4. The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Grossman is a white American man. (1969-present)
Amazon.com Review:

Mixing the magic of beloved children’s fantasy classics (from Narnia and Oz to Harry Potter and Earthsea) with the sex, excess, angst, and anticlimax of life in college and beyond, Lev Grossman’s Magicians reimagines modern-day fantasy for grownups. Quentin Coldwater lives in a state of perpetual melancholy, privately obsessed with his childhood books about the enchanted land of Fillory. When he’s admitted to the surreptitious Brakebills Academy for an education in magic, Quentin finds mastering spells is tedious (and love is even more fraught). He also discovers his power has thrilling potential–though it’s unclear what he should do with it once he’s moved with his new magician cohorts to New York City. Then they discover the magical land of Fillory is real and launch an expedition to use their powers to set things right in the kingdom–which, naturally, turns out to be a much murkier proposition than expected. The Magicians breathes life into a cast of characters you want to know–if the people you want to know are charismatic, brilliant, complex, flawed magicians–and does what Quentin claims books never really manage to do: “get you out, really out, of where you were and into somewhere better. ” Or if not better, at least a heck of a lot more interesting.

So, of the four books I’m presently reading, two are by women and two are by men, so my choices don’t reveal a gendered pattern at all. However, it is very distressing to realize that all of my authors are white and from western nations, ack! By only selecting books by white authors, I am limiting my view of literature, and thus my view of the world. Like the Publishers Weekly list, and the academic cannon in general, my reading selections (for the time being, at least) are white-centric.  Next time I pick up a book, I’ll try to rectify this.

How about you? What are you reading? Do you think the race, gender or social perspective (I didn’t have time to look up their sexuality or class identities) of the author makes a difference in the content of the book?

One Response to What Are You Reading? Why Does it Matter?

  1. blackwatertown says:

    I’ve read the first two in the three part series of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Excellent reads. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the third one. The personal story of the author and of the bitter disputes over his legacy since his death are also fascinating.

    Gender, race and class – or perhaps to put it another way – life experience is relevant. I wouldn’t say it necessarily defines one’s creativity. But as a reader, why deny oneself the rich variety that is out there.

    Also, trying to see the world through the eyes of a writer seemingly far removed from your own experience can sometimes be a useful way of exploring your personal experience, without so much personal baggage getting in the way.

    For instance, one reason I have enjoyed reading African writers is as a way of looking at colonisation of the mind, of language and of self image. It’s possible to have a less heated discussions about these questions than when applying them directly to my own hometown, Belfast. (However, there’s always the danger of projecting – of seeing everywhere as your own place with a different name.)

    One of my favourite books is A Ride On The Whirlwind, by South African writer Sipho Sepamla. http://wp.me/pDjed-M

    There’s a collection of short stories by Petina Gappah – An Elegy for Easterly, which is getting good reviews lately. She’s a black Zimbabwean woman, now living in Switzerland. She was recently awarded a prize by the Guardian national newspaper in Britain.

    And Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is very good. One Half of a Yellow Sun – novel set during the Biafran war of secession from Nigeria. Short stories – That Thing Around Your Neck.

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