Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Sunday, March 22, 2015

on reading diverse books

I wasn’t going to weigh in on the #readdiversebooks thing, because, after all, I’m the read-at-whim guy so you can guess my opinion about it, but also because if you are going to reject whim and confine your reading to certain approved categories, you could do worse that this. But okay, Saladin Ahmed — you’re the one who made this not about ethics, or exposing yourself to a wider variety of points of view, but rather boredom:

Now certainly, one could spend one’s life reading only books by straight white men, and never run out of wonderful material. But this is akin to spending a lifetime’s worth of vacations visiting only Disneyland. Whether or not one agrees with ‘the SJWs’ that it’s ethically contemptible, it is, in a word, boring.

I know, right? I mean, I was reading this book by Richard Dawkins and then I put it down and picked up Dante’s Divine Comedy and I’m like How am I supposed to tell these apart? James Joyce and George Herbert, Karl Marx and Dostoevsky, Samuel Johnson and Petrarch … all this heteronormativity and white supremacy … the sameness of it, you know? SO. BORING. Just one big old heterocaucasian Disneyland.

However, I do have some questions for Ahmed and the more moralistic Reading Monitors. First, I’m intrigued by this new book by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant — can I read that? I had no idea what his sexual orientation was but Wikipedia helped me out with that — so he’s straight — but is he white? He was born in Nagasaki to Japanese parents, but moved to England as a small child and has lived there ever since, so I’m confused. But I’m thinking that since Japanese people in apartheid-ruled South Africa were classified as honorary white people, I’d best stay away.

But I’ve also been looking at Augustine’s Confessions and that’s a real puzzler. Was Augustine a white person? I know most of the people who read him are white … well, probably … maybe … anyway, can you help me with that?

You get my point — or several of my points — but the most important among them is this: the whole debate is predicated on the unconfronted assumption that people will only be reading books written in the past few years. Ahmed’s ridiculous comment stems from this: he’s addressing readers who without a kick in the pants will just go from Jonathan Franzen to Jonathan Chait to Jonathan Lethem. But the farther you go back in time the fuzzier the relevant taxonomy becomes: both “straight” and “white” are recent categories than can’t be simply retrojected into history. (Evidence: Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People, J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A Theological Account, Hanne Blank’s Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality — to cite just three flawed but instructive and provocative books.)

Look: white men really are over-represented on editorial pages and periodical tables-of-contents and book-awards shortlists. So I understand what lies behind #readdiversebooks; but it’s really a movement for people who were going to read Curtis Sittenfield or Reza Aslan or Alexander Chee or Denis Johnson. What’s being ruled out right from the very beginning is the possibility of discovering the kinds of challengingly alien perceptions and ideas that arise from an encounter with the distant, or even the not-so-distant, past — or for that matter from other cultures in today’s world where people tend to have fair skin.

All this reminds me of a moment early in Bill Clinton’s presidency when he proudly announced that he had assembled the most diverse cabinet in American history — when 16 of the 20 members were lawyers. Similarly, you can end up praising yourself for the diversity of writers you’re reading when every single one of them got an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

So, by all means, avoid Neil Gaiman and Shakespeare for the rest of this year; but why not keep the #readdiversebooks going next year too? My suggestion: don’t read anything written since 1500.

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