ColumnRead something different. Sustain your mind.
I’m reading Beloved by Toni Morrison. It’s a good thing too, and not just because it’s a brilliant novel. The truth is that I never got around to this acclaimed classic for all the wrong reasons. In fact, looking back on why this book escaped me brings up something I think I’ve always been aware of, but tend to avoid talking about.
Why have I not read Beloved? A great many people consider it to be a—if not the—Great American Novel. Published in 1987, the book depicts slavery, its aftermath, and its impact on African-American families—specifically mother-daughter relationships. It’s beautifully written, and as arresting and powerful as anything I’ve ever read. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988 and is consistently on every “best books of all-time” list worth its salt. Yet sadly, it’s within all these points that I find my answer.
Truth be told, and as dry as it sounds, I’m a white, middle-class man. While I fancy myself a progressive thinker, Morrison’s book challenges my fiction comfort zone—that is to say, my “go to” list of what I normally choose to read. It’s not that I ever thought Beloved wouldn’t be a quality read—it’s just that I can be lazy. I’ve always thought of the book as intensely female- and family-oriented, and, of course, it’s focused on an excruciating, criminal and evil part of our cultural heritage. It’s not that I purposely choose to avoid these perspectives and subjects—it’s just that given the choice, I’ll usually default to something “more my speed.” My easy brain says: “Right. Pass. Maybe one day.”
Now I think I do better than most when it comes to reading outside my box. My reviews come in around the 50/50 men-to-women ratio and I even wrote a piece encouraging a good-faith gender exchange of reading material. But the fact remains: My bookshelves are crammed with people like me—white, middle-class men. (Ouch.) Yes, among my collected authors are writers of different genders, ethnicities and sexual orientations. I even have a couple books by conservatives. Hell, I have dozens of books by people who aren’t even like me!
(Yeah. I own many hundreds of books.)
Here’s how I came to be reading Beloved (and how I almost, stupidly, passed on the great book yet again): A couple of weeks back I was writing an InPRINT column on historical fiction. My plan was to mention some examples in the essay portion of the story, and then recommend 10 terrific titles. Because of my audience (and yes, because I have at least some commitment to broadening my brain), I went through my usual drill before choosing which books to include and asked myself: How many of these are by men and how many by women? How many are by African Americans or other people of color? Have I included writers with varying sexual orientations? Then a similar examination of plot lines, characters and themes: Is there a healthy mix? “Hmm. I should add another woman… and another person of color. I got it! Beloved! Two birds with one stone!” Off I went to my local bookstore.
On the way I began to have second thoughts. Was I manipulating my list for gender, race and political reasons? Was I forcing myself to read something that I might not ordinarily pick up because it was the “correct” thing to do? Was I being reactive to the fact that our media and publishing culture has been both sexist and racist in its coverage and promotion of the fiction we read?
“Yes, yes and yes!”
And so I stepped on the gas. And yes, Beloved is an amazing book. (I’ll let you know more about it when I’m finished.)
A Challenge For Us All
It is true that we live in a world that’s biased, bought and paid for when it comes to the fiction that’s proffered in our bookstore windows and on our computer screens. Indeed, this applies to almost all of the information we’re encouraged to take in these days (see what passes as “news”). The largest media outlets, book publishers and bookstores all, for many reasons, seem to have made little progress when it comes to breaking through diversity barriers in terms of gender, race and sexual orientation. And while that could be the biggest story in fiction today, there’s one place we can all start to address the issue—with our own choices.
Each of us can personally challenge ourselves to actively reach out and encounter who and what takes us outside what we know. For those of us who love fiction, there is no excuse not to read about the world from a point of view other than our own. Indeed, it is through the eyes of others that we can best gain a more robust perspective of our culture—its subjective truths and glories and failings as they apply to more than just our own insular lives. For this white boy that includes following a Nobel Prize-winning, master storyteller into the tragic life of an African American mother and slave. Where might it lead you?
With your help, InPRINT would like to run a follow-up to this column. We’d like to hear from you about your experiences reading a story by someone representing a point of reference or view outside your box. Better still, go out and get such a book now. Take some action to broaden your horizons, and then tell us about it. You can reach us at [email protected].
Editor’s note: News & Culture contributor Scott Adelson’s biweekly column, InPRINT, reviews and discusses books new and old, as well as examines issues in publishing. You can reach him at [email protected].
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