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February 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
Find more Every Book Its Reader
My wife and I are movie nerds, the kind who sit through credits because we want to know the names of actors, locations, or music used in the film. To pass time, we make a game of finding bizarre names in the credit crawl and reading them aloud. The names never disappoint. As we goof through Mustafah O’Hoolihan, Running Bear Sczyzinski, and Shaniqua Wong Glickstein, two conclusions can be drawn, equally plausible: either a large proportion of workers in the film industry live under truly inspired assumed names, or we really do live in an age of diversity. I’m not qualified to write about the first conclusion, so let’s explore the second.
In the readers’-advisory world, one approach is to match like to like and assume that everyone wants to read about people who look, think, and live as they themselves do. There’s a We Need Diverse Books movement aimed at creating opportunities for every reader, especially children, who ought to have literary role models. It’s important for adults, too, especially those who have traditionally been underrepresented. In our diverse world, readers of every stripe should be able to choose from at least a few authors like themselves in the genre or style they prefer to read. Although that goal hasn’t yet been achieved, we’re vastly closer than we were even a decade ago. We live in an exciting age, where people are working hard to create media streams to fit each niche.
Still, dangers can lurk in reading solely about our own kind. As we subdivide into demographic cubbyholes, the small niches provide less economic return for publishers. And although readers should have the option to explore their true selves, it’s just as important that we gain empathy for others. The point of diversity is not just to celebrate our individual tribe but also to appreciate the value of the whole human family.
That’s a tall order. Start simply, and with yourself. You can’t help readers explore either themselves or the “other” if you don’t read with diversity yourself. So stroll over to the bookshelves in your library and pick out an author with a name that you don’t know how to pronounce. Find a character in a cover picture who doesn’t look like you or your usual crowd.
The best reading I encountered in 2017 came from diverse books. The Heart’s Invisible Furies is good enough that it should become the breakout book of John Boyne’s stellar career. Cyril is adopted by bohemian parents who consistently remind him that he is not a “real Avery,” even as he hides his homosexuality from everyone close to him. This is the great novel of the nontraditional family, alive with Dickensian sweep and characters, laughter and tragedy in close proximity, and an arc that takes readers from the 1940s to 2015, from Ireland to Amsterdam, to New York and back to Ireland. This could be described as the great gay epic, but it would be a shame if it weren’t read by readers of all orientations.
In Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, protagonists Nadia and Saeed are “Every-refugees,” stand-ins for the millions uprooted by political violence, or those of us who could suffer the same fate. Hamid writes with you-are-here urgency, dropping readers into the narrative and giving a firsthand sense of how losing one’s home can leave people alienated, even from those who take the journey with them. It shares a crystalline beauty with another novel about surviving political violence, Nadeem Aslam’s The Golden Legend. Aslam transports us to a modern Pakistani neighborhood beset by religious extremism and the equally potent backlash against it. His narrators are Christians and Muslims transitioning between levels of belief and disbelief. Aslam’s ability to make readers care for each in equal measure makes his story that much more rending.
Jon Else was a producer on PBS’s landmark Eyes on the Prize, and his book True South is a biography of series creator Henry Hampton. In telling Hampton’s story, Else recaps key civil rights battles, then revisits the players years later, as documentarians rush to capture first-person accounts before a generation of activists passes away. Hampton’s working method, which paired production teams of men and women, blacks and whites, both created tension and ensured a perspective that didn’t reduce his story. Read True South as a biography, as a historical document, or as a master class in documentary filmmaking. It works on every level.
In these four books, the authors find the sublime in the midst of tragedy. These books glow with a luminous quality or yank belly laughs from the worst of moments, making stories that should be depressing a source of catharsis instead. In the diverse communities they portray, readers can discover universal truths.
I probably wouldn’t have tried these books had I not been on book-awards juries. Duties can lead to great pleasures. Unless you have the same luck I did, you might need to manufacture your own sense of requirement. Whatever it takes, get outside yourself to read and recommend diverse books. In doing so, you’ll become a better reader and a better person.
I couldn’t fit all of the great diverse reads I encountered last year into one column, so mosey on over to The Booklist Reader for descriptions of 10 more great picks for diverse readers.
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