In 2016, I embarked on a project where I tried to match my reading to the demographics of the U.S.* I set out to read 52 books broken down like this:
- 10 books (or ~17%) written by Latino writers
- 7 books (or ~13 %) written by writers from Africa or of African descent
- 3 books (or roughly 5%) written by writers from Asia or of Asian descent
- 1 book (or roughly 1%) written by a Native American writer
- 1 book (or roughly 1%) written by a writer from the pacific islands or of pacific island decent,
The rest of the books could (but certainly did not have to be) written by Caucasian writers.
Half of all books had to be written by women.
So, how’d I do? Pretty well, but not perfectly. I met the racial diversity goals, but, due to some faulty math along the way, I ended up reading slightly less than 50% female authors. I tried to hammer through and ended up reading a bit more than 52 books, but alas, the clock ran out at around 43% female writers.
Oh well, good effort, kid.
When I started this project, I knew it was problematic, but I thought it was worth giving it a try. Here’s what I learned:
For someone like me, who, when left to his own devices, will overwhelming read white men, setting up these rules forced me out of my comfort zone. I read books I’d never have known about before, seeking out Native American and Pacific Islander writers who would have forever been off my radar.
In seeking out these voices, I learned things I’d never have known otherwise, and that, to me, is one of the reasons for reading in the first place.
I knew going into this that the project could tokenistic and limiting, and that really started to come through in the last quarter of the year when I was trying to figure out my reading plan to meet the goal. For example, I wanted to read Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James, a Jamaican writer, but reading another male writer was going to hurt my stats, so I decided to wait until this year.
How does that make sense?
For me, reading is about exploring and learning, and I enjoy being improvisational in my choices. Of course, if I’d read less white dudes in the beginning of the year, reading James wouldn’t have been a problem. But I’d back myself into a corner with my stupid rules and they felt, well, silly and counter productive.
Even if I had read less white men, many other voices didn’t make it into my reading. I made no concerted effort to read LGBT writers, for example, or writers with disabilities. I also painted with an absurdly large brush. I conflated the vastly different experiences of a Chilean poet and a Dominican novelist under the umbrella “Latino” which is pretty much the definition of reductionist.
I knew going in that the limitations would create an imperfect tool, and they did. Still, I think it was worth the effort. I discovered quite a bit in terms of both new writers and the limits of this type of quota system.
I’m glad I did this project, but I won’t be doing it again. In 2017, I’m going to continue to prioritize diversity in my reading choice, but I’m moving away from this sort of quota system. I’m going to make an effort to read more women, and more people of color, and I’ll pay attention to the way things are shaking out, but I’m taking a break from rigid rules. We’ll see how it goes.
The Actual Books
Ok, enough ruminating. Onto what I actually read – 55 books, split pretty evenly between fiction and non-fiction. The books this year were a better than average group — there weren’t many stinkers in the lot.
Indeed, it’s hard to pick favorite, but I’ll try:
Best Nonfiction Book – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Manny Marable. A tough one. I loved One of Us and Just Mercy and in another year could have picked either of those. But Marable’s book is on another level. The scholarship, the reflection, the magnitude of the project, all of it combined to make an incredibly compelling read. This is not only the best book I read this year, but one of the best biographies I have ever read.
Best Fiction Book. Winter in the Blood. Equally hard to choose a favorite here. I could have chosen from among the many, many wonderful books I read this year including Family Life, Too Like the Lightning, Distant Star, the Fifth Season and People in the Trees, but I’m choosing Winter in the Blood, because it resonated with me so long after I closed it. It is beautifully written, and profoundly depressing, but buried among all the despair, there’s a hint of hope. I need hope right now, so it gets the nod.
Below is a complete list of the books with my annotation of whether I recommend it for the general reader, recommend it for the enthusiast interested in the subject matter, or if I think you shouldn’t bother at all.
Remember, I have no taste.
1. H is for Hawk, Helen McDonald – Recommended
2. One of Us: the Story of Anders Brevik and the Massacre in Norway, Asen Seierstad – Recommended
3. A Life Without Limits, Chrissie Wellington – Recommended for the Enthusiast
4. Black Flags: The rise of Isis, Joby Warrick – Recommended
5. Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Re-invest Money, Nathaniel Popper – Recommended
6. Mythology, Edith Hamilton – Recommended
7. The Greek Way, Edith Hamilton – Not Recommended
8. Stesichorus: Complete Works (Loeb edition), Stesichorus – Not Recommended
9. Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson – Recommended
10. Family Life, Akhil Sharma – Recommended
11. Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz – Recommended
12. Living With A Seal: 31 Days with the Toughest Man on the Planet, Jesse Itzler – Recommended
13. Red Doc >, Anne Carson – Recommended for the enthusiast
14. Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler– Recommended
15. The Trojan War: A Very Short Introduction, Eric Cline – Recommended for the Enthusiast
16. Shadow Divers: The True Story of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One Of the Last Mysteries of WWII, Robert Kurson – Recommended for the enthusiast
17. A Beautiful Mind, Sylvia Nasar – Recommended for the Enthusiast.
18. The Iliad, Homer (trans. Fagles) – Recommended
19. 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge and Found Self-Help That Actually Works, Dan Harris – Recommended for the Enthusiast
20. The Odyssey, Homer (trans. Fagles) – Recommended
21. The Aeneid, Virgil (trans. Fagels) – Recommended for the Enthusiast
22. Find A Way, Diane Nyad – Recommended
23. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson – Recommended
24. Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, Sonia Shah – Recommended
25. A Cold Day in Paradise, Steve Hamilton – Recommended for the Enthusiast
26. The Trojan Women, Hecuba, Andromache, Euripides (trans. Moorwood) – Recommended
27. The World of Odysseus, M.I. Finley – Recommended
28. The Beautiful Struggle, Ta-Nehisi Coates – Recommended
29. The Second Life of Nick Mason, Steve Hamilton – Recommended for the Enthusiast
30. Infomacracy, Malka Older – Recommended for the Enthusiast
31. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Manny Marable – Recommended
32. The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin – Recommended
33. Too Like the Lightning, Ada Palmer – Recommended
34. Racing Weight: How to Get Lean for Peak Performance, Matt Fitzgerald – Recommended for the Enthusiast
35. 80/20 Running: Run Stronger and Race Faster by Training Slower, Matt Fitzgerald – Recommended for the Enthusiast
36. The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Xicana In A Female Punk Band, Michelle Cruz Gonzales – Recommended
37. Loquela, Carlos Labbe – Not Recommended
38. Winter In the Blood, James Walsh – Recommended
39. Straits of Mesinna, Samuel Delany – Recommended for the Enthusiast
40. History of Buddhism, Robert Lopez – Recommended for the Enthusiast
41. War and the Iliad, Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff – Recommended
42. Lost City Radio, Daniel Alarcon – Recommended for the Enthusiast
43. Inferno, Patricia Mello – Not Recommended
44. Run or Die, Killian Jornet – Recommended for the Enthusiast
45. Hillbilly Elegy: A Story of a Family and Culture in Crisis J.D. Vance – Recommended
46. Distant Star, Roberto Bolano – Recommended
47. Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, Pablo Neruda – Recommended for the Enthusiast
48. Sudden Death, Alvaro Enrique – Recommended for the Enthusiast
49. The Vegetarian, Han Kang – Recommended
50. The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin – Recommended
51. Shiner, Maggie Nelson – Recommended for the Enthusiast
52. Bluets, Maggie Nelson – Recommended for the Enthusiast
53. Pond, Claire Louise Bennett _ Recommended for the Enthusiast
54. The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara – Recommended
55. By Night in Chile, Roberto Bolano – Recommended
*You can see my orginal post on what I planned to read in 2016 here.