Not Reading White Men

I’m a reader. A book worm. A book dragon, really. Books are my favorite things in the world.  This is one of my most well-known characteristics and often the source of jokes among my friends and family. I can’t go into bookstores unaccompanied because I can’t stop myself from breaking my budget. When my father (another book dragon) and I get together we always go to a bookstore. I love to give books and I love to get books. At any time I might be in the middle of four or five books.

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Last year I came across a video of a mother and her daughter who removed all the books in a children’s bookstore that didn’t have girl characters, or girl characters who spoke, or girl characters who had real aspirations and goals. I started thinking about my own bookshelf and my reading history. Many of the books I’ve read are “classics”: War and Peace, Catcher in the Rye, The Crucible, Cat’s Cradle, everything by Shakespeare (although I like the theory that he might be a she) and most of them were by white men. I had also read a lot by women: Toni Morrison, JK Rowling, Jane Austin, Maya Angelou. But looking at my shelf I didn’t feel they were evenly distributed. Most of my authors were men. I also noticed most of my authors were white. Both of these facts troubled me.

Everyone reads for different reasons. Lots of people just read what they have to for school or work. Some people read to learn new things. Many people read as a way to escape into another world for a while. I read for all these reasons. I want to learn new things and hear new stories. But if I’m mostly reading white men, then I’m limiting what I can learn and the stories I can enjoy. Every person in the world is unique and has their own story to tell, no doubt. It is hard to deny, though, that people who are very similar in lots of ways (white, male, straight, Christian, cis, educated, wealthy, able bodied, etc) are going to have a lot of overlap in their stories. One of the beauties of reading for me is that I get exposed to experiences and ways of viewing the world that are vastly different than my own. I have nothing against white men as authors, some of them are exceptional, but I feel like I have a pretty good grip on their view of the world. It was taught to me in school, it is represented in popular entertainment, it is implemented in the laws of my country. Reading more stories from them gives me more of the same. I want a broader perspective.

So last year I stopped reading books by white men. I read Roxanne Gay, Charlene A. Carruthers, Reni Eddo-Lodge, and Michelle Alexander. I was delighted to find that I was getting new stories and new views.

The history I got in At the Dark End of the Street by Danielle L. McGuire was unlike any American history I had read before—and much more interesting. It aligned more with my understanding of how women move through the world. Rosa Parks wasn’t a tired woman who accidentally started a movement, as we were taught in school. She was a lifelong activist who investigated rape cases in the south and advocated justice for the victims. She was part of a movement that took decades of building momentum before the iconic images that we see celebrated on Martin Luther King, Jr Day came about.  

I read stories about life in Nigerian cities I had never heard of. Ways of life completely foreign to me came alive on the pages of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. I was delighted to listen to debates about white interference in Nigeria through the ears of a house boy from a tiny village. I was relieved to read about the characters insecurities, passions, and interactions with each other. They were so like my own and I found that comforting. A different time, a different country, a different history and I was still so able to relate to the characters. It was a welcomed reminder that the difference between people that we so often focus on are not all encompassing. I imagine that if American children were all reading Adiche in school, we would have fewer adults dehumanizing people from Nigeria. The otherness that allows us to be cruel to each other doesn’t stand a chance in the face of these stories.

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After a year of not reading white men, I am occasionally picking up a book by one (I binged on a John Grisham novel while stuck in an airport last month). After broadening my consumption I now find my palette changed. The white men taste bland while the books by women are vibrant. I have enjoyed some books by men of color as well, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. They are better than books by white men but I don’t enjoy them as much as the writings of women which I find feeds my soul. I recommend taking a year off from reading books authored by white men and see if you can also develop a taste for something more than the ordinary.

Article by Claire Ryder
VERVE Operative USA & Humanitarian Activist

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