Four white women, no less.
On GoodReads, “shelves” function much like tags. While I mostly sort books according to genre or subject, I also created a few shelves to track my reading demographics: “male authors,” “women authors,” “writers of color,” “Americans,” and so on. I don’t use these shelves to fill any quota, but to observe my own reading patterns and biases—and hopefully to challenge those trends.
Even conscious of this, I still didn’t do so well in 2011. I read only eight books by women—and four of those were by the same two authors (Annie Proulx and Zadie Smith, if you’re wondering). I read two books by queer writers, and just five books by non-white writers. Sheesh.
To be fair, there are statistically more books by white males than there are by writers of color and women. So when I search for a new book to read, I’m more likely to pick a book by a white person or a man.
It requires extra intentionality to even out these proportions in your own reading habits. I won’t read a badly-written book just to fulfill some weird version of literary affirmative action—but I will take the extra effort to find well-written books by not-straight, not-male, not-white authors.
Just Kids by Patti Smith (audiobook)
I could listen to Patti Smith’s gravelly, twangy voice forever. Especially given the (very pleasant) surprise that she’s a good fucking writer. I often listen to nonfiction audiobooks as background noise while doing chores, but this isn’t a good option for that—you want to pay attention. You want to close your eyes and listen to her voice, and picture the whole grimy wonderful thing.
Smith could’ve written the story of good old fashioned bohemian artists tumbling into fame, but Just Kids is consistently intimate; she succeeds in keeping the frame of the book on her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. What’s more impressive is that the story remains intimate while also confronting Very Big Things like queerness and music and art and intimacy.
We’re obsessed with origin stories: with knowing how Patti Smith or President Obama or Steve Jobs got where they are. And there is something nostalgic about Just Kids, because it portrays a process of Turning Into Adults that doesn’t exist for many of us anymore. Because, you know, we have the internet.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Never have I read a book where I have so little in common with the narrator, the context, and the plot. In short: A half-Indian, Minnesotan, pre-menopausal lab scientist for a Pharmaceutical company travels to the Amazon jungle to determine the mystery behind her colleague’s death and encounters secret jungle chemicals that allow women to remain fertile their whole lives.
It’s just so… theatrical. Which, frankly, kept me from really feeling engaged in the book. It’s theatrical without any of the surrealism or fantasy that defines great science fiction or Harry Potter. This had more in common with political thrillers and romance novels.
So yeah: I didn’t feel emotionally invested in this book until a particular scene about 85% of the way through in which an ANACONDA TRIES TO EAT A CHILD.
Bossypants by Tina Fey
There’s not much to say that hundreds of interviews and reviews haven’t already. Except that Fey drops a David Foster Wallace reference, and she can cite the specifics of major court rulings for the past century. So, you know, damn.
I Was Told There’s Be Cake by Sloane Crosley
How exactly does one approach critiquing nonfiction essays when one generally dislikes the writer as a person? And yet I Was Told There’d Be Cake is a smart and well-written book, enough to make me mark her second book to read later.
It’s not just that Crosley is privileged and and a bit insular, though both of those qualities are general turn-offs for me. It’s more that her self-deprecation and her lens on the most embarrassing/pathetic parts of herself doesn’t work for me. Unlike other writers who do this successfully (e.g. David Sedaris), Cake has a weird mean-spirited streak of selfishness that, for me, undermines the appeal of clever, awkward stories.