Books - glorious, wonderful, mind changing, world creating, reality reflecting-distorting-enhancing books. But what do the books I read say about me? In a previous post, accidental sexist, I wrote about how the gender split of the authors I've read showed that I wasn't as progressive or equal minded as I thought. The number of male authors I read far outstripped female ones. Since then I've improved that ratio but what other societal imbalances does my reading list reflect? Given the recent Black Lives Matter protests I wanted to do a similar analysis and see if I was an accidental racist too.
Labeling the authors I read
Labels can empower, unite and create solidarity but can also be misleading and restrictive. I’m categorising authors to help improve the variety of books I read, to allow me to experience the world through different eyes. Some authors I imagine just want to be labelled as authors, others may be happier to be seen as a voice for their community. In trying to improve my outlook I appreciate that I’m sat here with my white male privilege handing out labels to those who may not want to be categorised. My aim is to help understand and improve my habits rather than to specifically bracket an author. In the analysis below I've provided my best guess for the percentage of BAME authors I've read each year - I'd be interested if others analysis the list of authors would come up with the same figures?
BAME - a flawed but understood label
In analysing my reading habits I considered a range of categories such as BAME, BME, Alternative Views, Ethnic Minority, Racially Distinct, Ethnically Contrasting etc. After lots of thoughts, reading articles and chatting to friends I've decided use the term BAME - I appreciate while it may have its flaws and may not be fully representative of how people identify it is a commonly used term and most people understand what it represents. I don’t feel qualified to try and claim a new phrase or to use a term that I may not fully understand. BAME while not perfect fulfills the aims of this post in allowing me to analyse my reading habits.
There are so many reasons I read - for fun, to learn about me or the world around, to live love and dream a different reality or fantasy. Reading a more diverse set of authors is about my education and learning about their lived experiences but it is equally about enjoying new works, new books and discovering new talent. I mainly consume fiction and while fiction can often shine a sharp light on the realities around us often the aims are hidden and wrapped up. I’ve begun to take on books that are specifically aimed as a dialogue and analysis of the world around. Think of the difference between Beloved by Toni Morrison and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
You can see a full list of the books I've read at my books project. The chart below is taken from that project and shows the Gender split and the number of BAME the authors I’ve read since 2011.
Accidental Racist - The Stats
Back in 2011 and 2012 I rediscovered reading and wanted to catch up on some modern classics - particularly the Great American Novel. As a result my reading habits were dominated by white men. Since then the balance of female to male authors has improved - the last four years I've read roughly double the amount of female authors as male (and a couple of books by authors who are non binary/trans). During this same period of time I have also read more books by authors with a BAME background. In making myself think about gender inequality it also made me think about other forms of inequality and has improved the breadth of my reading in all directions.
We are impacted by the world around us - the system labelled Roth, Updike and Bellow as the authors to read. Since then I've changed and I think that the system has also changed a little - there are more lists, recommendations and support for underrepresented author. But these are small improvements and there is a lot more to do. It can still be so easy to be influenced by subconscious bias that has been built up over many years.
Time and focus
2015 was the first year I read more female authors than male. I focussed on changing my habits, congratulated myself and felt I'd solved that problem. Sorted! The next year I read four times as many male authors as female - with effort I'd overcome systemic issues but they were still around. Without that focus I fell back into being influenced by the environment around me, reverting to familiar habits.
Change takes revolution, evolution and persistence. It also takes time to balance out inequality - since 2016 I've read many more female authors - often twice as many male authors. Despite that, since 2011 I've still read more male authors and can only imagine that the imbalance would be even worse if I had documented my earlier reading habits. Fixing imbalance doesn't happen overnight.
In a similar way the Black Lives Matter protests are very visible and for a short time we’re all conscious of the issues. For me thinking, drafting and writing this post has helped keep those issues at the front of my mind the past few weeks. Whenever I finish a book and add it to my reading list I'll fill in the details around if they’re an ethnically contrasting voice. I hope this process will keep wider issues surrounding race high up in my consciousness in the years ahead. Wishing to be better is great but finding new habits and processes to support that change can help make those wishes real and lasting.
Enjoying the process
My favourite books that I've read over the past years have come from authors all across the ethnic spectrum (as have the books I've not liked!). I've loved the range of books although it's hard to describe the connection you get with some of the best books. The ones I engage and get enthralled with the most are often the toughest. Fiction can be exciting, fun, enthralling and still teach you about the world. You can learn and be wiser whilst still enjoying the process at the same time - it doesn't have to be a chore. There's always a contrasting book that can change your spirits if things get too real or tough.
What's the right number of BAME authored books to read? In the UK roughly 15% of the population is BAME whilst in Hackney (where I live and work) it's around 50%. I am aiming to read at least 25% a year. The other 75% isn't just white British and American men. It's a mix of all genders from across Europe, South America and beyond. Let's see how I do - so far only three of the last ten years hit that target.
Within a diverse set of voices there can be common themes. Books by James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Jame Douglass and Ta-Nehisi Coates all tell very familiar and overlapping stories. The repetition and reinforcement is powerful but I also feel that I now have lots of knowledge of the story of slavery in America but am blind to the story of race in the UK.
I'm conscious that getting to the end of the year and having a bunch of nice stats to show off is just a starting point - numbers can only reflect a small part of reality - it's up to me to look beyond the numbers and find the right mix of voices and stories.
Travelling mind and body
The range of authors has also expanded the more I've travelled. When visiting new countries I try to read books set in, or written by authors from those countries. Trips to countries including Pakistan, Vietnam and Japan have helped expand both my mind and view on the world. I've enjoyed the books and got more out of my travels. If the future holds less travel then I hope my mind can still visit new places.
Unsurprisingly, as a white man living in a systemically racist country my reading habits weren't balanced. The good news is that thinking about any sort of inequality (in this case gender) helped me be more conscious about all forms of inequality. While focusing on reading female authors I've also focussed on reading and listening to ethnically contrasting voices. Now by also tracking and thinking about the race of the authors I read will help keep my reading habits broad. The aim is also to keep these issues front of mind. It's up to me to take that and ensure I also address other aspects of my life - how I interact with the world and those around me open my eyes to inequality and the differences of the lived experiences of others.
I get my book recommendations from a wide range of sources. A big thank you to friends who've recommended books, Niljana Roy for her excellent newspaper column and Pages bookshop in Hackney who regularly promote and celebrate a wide breadth of authors, supply me the majority of my books and are always free for a good chat!
Thank you to Candice who works with me, proof read this and has been lending me books - I've loved getting to know Trinidad through the literature she has lent me - thank you!
Finally the biggest thanks to Haroon. We met a number of years ago at a running club and I have been following him on social media ever since. He has a blog, writes poetry and also uses his platform to talk about many topics including racial inequality. He was a huge help as a proof reader in both improving my writing and also helping me analyse and interrogate some of the ideas in the earlier drafts of this post. Thank you.
If you're interested you can see the previous drafts for this post - see the commit history on github. You can also have an idea of the time and process that I take when writing a post.