Friday, January 2, 2015

Diversity and Intentions

At the beginning of 2014, I told myself that I wanted to read more broadly and with an eye toward more diversity. Certainly, the whiteness and middle-class American-ness of the publishing industry has received a lot of press lately, as has the overall whiteness of children’s literature. Politically, the data about (the lack of) diversity in literature has reenergized the discussion about inclusion and the role of writing and art in creating a more just society.

So what does that have to do with me? If you exclude the reading I do for my job, I mostly choose books based on whim and my mood. But I’d like to think that I grow when I read, that I become a more understanding person when I step into the shoes of different characters and walk through settings that are unlike my own. So the question is whether my whim and my mood actually give me a broad reading life.

Last year, when I said I wanted to read with an eye toward more diversity, it turns out that I was very unspecific in my ambition. I did not quantify what “more” meant. I did not qualify what “diversity” meant. In part, that lack of specificity stemmed from the fact that I don’t read with any particular agenda. Reading is not my homework. I read what appeals to me, because I’m looking for a particular kind of experience at a particular moment, not because I want to achieve anything or measure anything or prove anything.

My lack of specificity, however, made my reading goal sort of like a formless New Year’s Resolution (e.g. “I will lose weight” instead of “I will eat six carrots and run five miles daily”). And when it comes to reading diversely, the devil is very much in the details – Does reading more diversely mean that I read more books by nonwhite authors, no matter the subject? Or does reading more diversely mean reading books with a diverse array of characters, no matter the background of the author? Does diverse reading have to do with setting? For me, does it mean that the setting is not in the United States? Or does it mean that the setting is not “Western?” And what of other kinds of diversity – gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc.?

I keep track of what I read on Goodreads, so I am able to do a little bit of data analysis. I read just over 5 books a month on average during 2014. Just for fun, I created a few broad categories of analysis: books with an author of color; books with a main character of color; and books with a non-United States setting. I recognize that these categories do not encompass all of the dimensions of diversity, so don’t get upset. I’m just taking my temperature here.

With unspecific intent to read more diversely, 8% of the books I read in 2014 had an author of color.

3% of the books that I read in 2014 had a main character that was a person of color.

(As an aside, of the nine nonfiction titles that I read for pleasure, four concerned race or race relations. One of those books had an author of color.)

25% of the books that I read last year were set in a country that was not the United States. But if I look at books that were set in a non-Western country, that number drops to 3%.

My takeaway here is that my formless reading ambition to read more diversely in 2014 did not yield a reading life that was especially broad. So what about 2015? How can I give structure to my ambition without making reading all about structure?

I am going to devote January to coming up with a plan that works for me, so stay tuned.  In the meantime, let me know about your approach to reading broadly (hint: leave a comment!).


Rebecca in Seattle said...

I love many things about this post: that you're asking the meta question, then breaking it down in a way that makes me question myself, looking at it qualitatively and quantitatively...all in a very real and engaging voice.

jennifer said...

Hello Rebecca in Seattle! I just saw YOUR blog. How very awesome. So excited to watch it grow.

Thanks for commenting, too. :)