In graduate school, I began annotating the books I read. Unlike lots of things from graduate school that I should still be doing, this habit stuck. I do it to this day. I love making that short entry in my tiny notebook when I finish reading something—an intentional assessment of resonance, failings, delights—and I find it very useful to track my reading this way. Although I read voraciously, I have trouble recalling book titles, and have been known to draw a Palin-esque blank when put on the spot to name favorites. (At one event with a Q&A period, someone asked me for books I’d recommend and I seriously considered responding, “All of them?”) Even when I do remember what I’ve read and loved, context often eludes me. The process of annotating helps lodge titles more deeply in my gray matter, and when I thumb back through my notebooks (organized by year) I can map changes in my reading landscape and note connections to the wider world.
We all have different ways of moving from one book to another. Some course-plotters I know keep disciplined “to-read” lists and rarely deviate for a spontaneous impulse. I encountered a person who reads books solely from Little Free Libraries, exchanging a finished book for whatever someone else decided to part with. There are devoted book review readers, and those who choose titles only from trusted recommenders. My reading list is typically driven about half by a “to-read” list (itself partly driven by research or work-in-progress) and half by whim (book reviews, friends’ tips, library and bookstore displays).
Two years ago, though, I made a conscious change to my literary way-finding. A slow niggle had been building for a few years—that my book choices were too similar, that I relied heavily on limited sources for new reading, and subsequently, I wasn’t stretching far enough beyond my default choices. Aided by the VIDA count (originally highlighting the gender disparities in literary publishing, and more recently broadened to analyze a range of intersectional markers) and efforts like #We Need Diverse Books (a movement devoted to pushing for and championing diversity in kids’ and young adult literature), literary culture has been talking more openly about the sad fact that most white Americans read predominantly white Americans. I have long considered myself a wide-ranging reader, but when I turned to my own lists the data was undeniable: my reading was about 75-80% weighted in the white direction. (I tend to read pretty evenly gender-wise.)
This bothered me, because it’s not how I want to be. Many of the lifetime favorites comprising my personal canon are writers of diverse backgrounds: James Welch, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Louise Erdrich, Vladimir Nabokov, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston and Shusako Endo, to name a few. In recent reading as well, books by writers of color have packed the biggest wallop. When I think of authors that have left a lasting impression in the past three years, Justin Torres’ We the Animals, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Ernestine Hayes’ Tao of Raven, and poems by Terrance Hayes and Vievee Francis come immediately to mind. Yet despite these highlights, a look at my annotations overall told me that percentage-wise, I could be doing a lot better.
So, I changed things up. Sometimes you need rules to make a game more interesting (witness: tennis, sonnets.) You could say I invented a reading-list form for myself. It goes like this:
As I move from one book to another, two things have to change from the previous selection–the genre, and the gender, nationality or ethnicity of the writer. For example, say I read a novel by a white woman (which I often do). The next book could be poems, essays, book-length non-fiction, or short stories written by a woman of a race/ethnicity other than white, or by any kind of man (or gender minority). I am not a particularly systematic person, so I do not rigidly prescribe the switches. But I do try to vary which factor I change from book to book so I don’t end up toggling back and forth between White-Female-Novelist and Black-Male-Poet, for example.
This simple rule has revolutionized my reading. It has introduced me to new authors, kept me out of tonal, formal and thematic ruts, and provided some fascinating juxtapositions. Moving from Annie Proulx’s most recent novel set in seventeenth-century forests (Barkskins) to Edward P. Jones’ first short story collection set in 20th century Washington DC (Lost in the City) was a revelation—about the varieties of experience that comprise “American,” and about how dialect can define fiction, for good or ill. Willie Hensley’s Inupiaq memoir of a far-northern childhood (Fifty Miles from Tomorrow) led to Nickole Brown’s biography-in-poems of her southern grandmother (Fanny Says), each nodding to intergenerational trauma in a different way. Ross Gay’s effusive and loving poems of black male Americanness (Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude) glowed in colors as vivid as its cover art while Joan Naviyuk Kane’s opaque and shimmering poems of Inupiaq-woman-self (Hyperboreal) limned subarctic monochrome. Some books, their proximity rather random, blew my mind together in ways they might not have on their own.
Of course, exceptions arose. On work hitches this summer, I reached for multiple white-guy mysteries (Henning Mankell, Michael Connelly, Giles Blunt), because when I’m exhausted after 12-hour days of labor and am reading for seven minutes before I pass out, sometimes only a familiar, depressive detective will do. On the other hand, a triple-whammy black female novelist binge (Zadie Smith, two by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) was worth bending the rules for. After all, the point is not dogmatism, but its opposite—to be open.
Important questions loom beneath the surface of this fairly nuts-and-bolts post. How does reading shape self, if it does? What’s the relationship between taste and comfort? Is a focus on identity markers good for literature overall? What about reading across age, disability, gender/orientation spectrum, class? All questions worthy of further thought and discussion. But for now, I can say this: I changed the way I choose books, and it changed the way I read. It changed me.
I think often about a quote I heard from Eric Deggans, a TV critic for NPR. He was talking about the first black contestant on The Bachelorette but his point is equally relevant to a reading list: “True diversity isn’t just about expecting black people to assimilate into a mostly white world; it’s about widening that world to reflect the experiences of everyone in it.” And for me, a truly inclusive reading list isn’t just a bunch of white authors with a few tokens folded in. It’s a catalog of possibilities as multi-vocal, contradictory and vibrant as the world we live in.
Christine Byl is a professional trail-builder and the author of Dirt Work: An Education In the Woods. Her prose has appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, Crazyhorse & Brevity, among other journals & anthologies. A recipient of grants from the Rasmuson Foundation & Alaska State Council on the Arts, she teaches classes on subjects from haibun to chainsaw mechanics. Christine lives in Interior Alaska where she is at work on a novel.