I read a book by a white guy the other month. I know! I’m trying to diversify my reading list, so I thought I’d give Dan Simmons a go. Okay, I’m sort-of kidding, but I’ve been thinking lately about the content of my reading list and what it looks like compared to, say, ten or five or even one year ago.
When you’re a writer, reviewer and bookseller, and when you live in a city as chock-a-block with charity shops as Edinburgh, books kind of just throw themselves at you. They come from publishers, reviews editors, charity shops, colleagues and friends and, though there’s always a fair amount of dross to sift through (sorry Nicholas Sparks!), there are almost always a few gems to be found.
I stumbled across my copy of Crimson, by queer Greenlandic author Niviaq Korneliussen, completely by accident. I’ve requested a review copy of Malaysian British author Zen Cho’s fantasy The True Queen from the publisher and it should be here any day now. I found a copy of the Earthsea novels, Ursula le Guin’s epic fantasy inspired by the indigenous cultures of California, at a used bookstore, and I found a copy of N K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season while charity shopping for clothes - it was the only book on a shelf of bric-a-brac! Last week a friend who knew I liked Juno Dawson handed me a proof copy of her new novel (which I’m devouring at a frightening rate).
What I’m trying to say is that nowadays, “diverse” books, books by women, queer and BAME authors, are so accessible to me that they feel almost like the low-hanging fruit. Reading challenges that involve reading only LGBT or only African authors, or only books in translation, hardly seem like challenges at all! It’s almost second nature to me these days to tune out the Hemingways, the Bukowskis, the Austers and the Knausgaards. It’s really easy for me to say “no” to that 1,000 page tome about the college professor falling in love with his young, beautiful, large-breasted teaching assistant. And it hasn’t occurred to me until right now that that’s an environmental factor as well: I’ve lived and worked in environments where certain books were lauded as “good”, or “classic”, which was to say they were old, long and written by men. And if you didn’t read or didn’t like or didn’t pretend to like these books, you were a pleb, with nothing worthwhile to say. Your tastes were childish, and there really wasn’t all that much out there for you.
But that’s changed for me. Living in Edinburgh, having a diverse group of bookish friends, hanging out in Lighthouse, has given me access to so many weird and wonderful books. And these are the books that excite me. They’re new, and fresh, they speak to me and my life and they open my eyes to new ways of being and new possibilities in storytelling.
But it’s also a huge luxury that these books aren’t a luxury anymore. Not everyone lives in a city of literature, and books are my milieu - I’m simply exposed to more books on a daily basis than the average human. But imagine if every reader had access to this many new perspectives? How different would the world be if everyone had access to so many stories of life that were so different from their own? Knowledge is power - but if people only have access to the conventional choices then power stays in the hands of the powerful. The status quo can’t change.
This is why libraries, used bookshops and even just the power of lending and borrowing are so important. So think about that when you go to Marie Kondo your book collection: who could use these stories? How do I get them into their hands? Take them to your local library, donate them to a used book shop, lend or gift them to your friends and family. Share them.