If you follow any book-related blog or news site (like BookRiot, BuzzFeed Books, or even this very blog that you’re reading), then the chances are that you’ve come across a few posts with lists of books you should consider reading.
Roxanne Gay recently wrote an article for Slate titled “The Sorry State of ‘Women You Should Be Reading Now’ Lists” about, well, the sorry state of book lists that attempt to diversify the authors readers select. A fellow contributor shared this article with me. It seemed fitting. Although I have never claimed the title “feminist,” I do realize that my view of the world is tinted with those ideals.
“At their best, these lists do reach readers who may not be familiar with writers of a certain demographic,” says Gay. “But if ‘women’ are still a demo in need of PR, these lists, while purporting to help expand reader perspectives and support women writers, often end up having a narrowing effect.”
Before I started to read this article, I had already been opposed to lists of the kind that Gay speaks of—which I realize might come off as a shock to some, being that I am a woman, a writer, and a person with feminist tendencies. But in truth, I don’t, and will never, seek out a book based on the gender of the person who wrote it.
Why? Because I don’t care. To me, books are like any great art form. They’re like children. You create them, but then you send them off into the world. People see them in ways you never did or could. They extend beyond you, becoming so much more and carving out their own identity—one unrelated to the author and especially their gender.
Perhaps that will offend some authors. Perhaps that belittles their role in the process. But if the book is good, it takes on a life of its own. Readers sit, hunched over, eyes dry and blinking, so absorbed in whatever book they’re clutching because the characters speak to them, because the plot twists and turns, because the words say something—about the world, about humans, about life—that the reader could never quite say with as much beauty or truth as that author did.
That is why I read, at least. And if I scan the list of books that have stuck with me over the years, I can’t lie and say that many of them weren’t written by females. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, Lucky by Alice Sebold, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. But there are a plethora of books I’ve loved written by males, each, coincidentally (or not), with female protagonists—strong, flawed, everything that women are. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Kept by James Scott, His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman.
If I read books only written by women, I purport the idea that women need saving. That they need a campaign—#readwomen2014, it’s a thing—in order to be read. And I’d like to think we’re past that.
However, I do think book lists are important.
Gay ends her article by saying “We take a book into our hands. We turn the first page. We wait to see where a writer will take us, what she will show us. We hope for the best and sometimes we’re disappointed and sometimes when we are luckiest, we are transported.”
She says this in response to book lists, that in an ideal world we wouldn’t need them or anyone to tell us to read [insert author type here]. I agree with her, but this is a different time. Two weeks ago, my sister, also an avid reader, asked me for a list of books to read. She asked for something thrilling, page-turning, mysterious, adventurous—not, on the other hand, something written by a woman.
When my sister asked, she said “It’s harder to pick a book these days when you can’t flip through the pages and actually look at it first.”
That’s the world we live in. Back home, in Southern California, the closest bookstore to me was a thirty to forty-five minute drive. Here, in Portland, I’m lucky enough to have Powell’s. Today’s readers don’t always have the luxury of flipping through a book—of courting it before deciding to take it back home.
We have lists. We have friends and family members who also read. And that’s where we discover books.
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