Back in January, I set my Goodreads challenge for the year at 50 books. I knew this would be ambitious because I usually average about 25 books a year. However, I vowed this would be the year I finally read all those books on my TBR pile, even if it meant prioritizing reading over all the shows in my Netflix queue.
The real goal, albeit the one I did not have a nifty online calculator for, was to read more diverse books, specifically more books with LGBTQ+ characters, people of color, and authors of different cultural backgrounds. I wanted to read serious books, books that would help me broaden my sense of socially conscious thinking and perhaps shed some light on the crazy political crisis in our country.
It’s not going well. The limited Netflix thing has been easier than expected since I never watched that much TV to begin with, and the number goal doesn’t have me too concerned. I’ve only read eight books so far, but I usually do most of my reading during the summer. The goal that I’m really struggling with is reading more diverse books, especially diverse books on serious issues.
I started strong. Five of the eight books I’ve read were authored by people of color or were novels with themes of social/political issues. However, at the beginning of March I began to enter a mental funk. I read books like I was on autopilot. I took no pleasure in spending the last few snowy nights of winter curled up on the couch. Since I was limiting my Netflix consumption, I turned to tasks like cleaning my apartment and doing laundry, because even household chores were more appealing than my current book.
An Attempt at Rising Action
Although my closet has never been more organized nor my floor more spotless, this wasn’t like me at all. I’m usually happiest when it’s 3 AM and I have a pile of dirty dishes in the sink that I don’t notice because I’m so absorbed in my book. I blame most of my reading lethargy on the mental drain that is the Trump administration. Which is ironic, since this past election was the very thing that inspired me to make my diverse reading goals.
With the daily news cycle filled with nothing but doom and gloom, the last thing I felt like doing was reading about Apartheid-era South Africa or race relations in the southern United States, even if they were well written novels. I began to realize I wasn’t going to make it through the year like this. So I visited the library and checked out several lighthearted YA titles that I’ve been meaning to read, and I even grabbed a few of my old favorites (Jane Austen FTW!) on my way out.
The Climax (Aka the Real Problem)
I felt a bit ashamed about doing this. I spent most of last year reading books about privileged middle-class white women –women just like myself–and it was my goal not to do this again. However, I think there’s a natural tendency for readers to choose books with characters that remind them of themselves. It’s easier to lose yourself in a world that already mirrors your own, or perhaps acts out a fantasy that you’ve often envisioned for your own life. When you’re longing for escapism, you don’t want to enter a world that is worse off than your own.
The problem is, that as a straight cisgendered white woman, there’s no shortage of books with characters I can relate to. I could read 50 books a year for the rest of my life and never venture beyond my world of white privilege. Readers with marginalized identities don’t have the same options.
Which brings me back to my conundrum of reading for escapism vs. reading for self-improvement. The dichotomy between these two things is present in most forms of media. One need look no further than the controversy surrounding La La Land vs. Moonlight for best picture, or the argument between people who use Facebook to share political news vs. those who just want to see funny cat videos.
However, in a world dominated by technology and commercialism, reading feels different than other forms of entertainment. Does the very act of picking up a book mean that I should automatically be involved in a more intellectual pursuit than I would be with other forms of media? Is there a space for both social activism and entertainment in reading?
Is Falling Action the Same as Failing Action?
Reading for pleasure vs. reading for self-improvement is a balancing act, and it’s one I’m still working to perfect. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the books on social justice issues. As a reader, I want to constantly be seeking information that I can better use to understand the world around me. However, as a flawed human being, sometimes I just need a mental break.
When I snuggled up in bed last night with The Secret Diary of Lydia Bennet I felt excited about reading again for the first time in several weeks. For just a short hour or two I was able to press the pause button on some of the ugliness of the world and escape into another. This act of self-care was important for me at a moment when I really needed to block out all the negativity of my Facebook feed and cable news.
I’m hoping this pause can also serve as a reset button, and I can then return to my socially conscious reading list with renewed vigor. Next up on the TBR pile is Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Because even though a book about the Nigerian Civil War doesn’t sound like a great way to relax and unwind, I also know that reading books from diverse perspectives has helped shaped me into the reader (and person) I am today. I can never truly walk in another person’s shoes, but reading about diverse characters can help me to understand the struggles of people whose lives are different than my own.
The Resolution (for Now)
At the end of most stories, I have come to find that even the characters I thought were very different from myself really aren’t. Their struggles might be far worse than anything I’ve ever had to endure, but the real revelation about reading about people from different backgrounds is coming to realize that human nature is always the same. Human beings are human beings, and at the end of the day, we all just want to have someone to relate to. We all just want to escape and imagine a happy ending for our troubles before we go to sleep. Reading taught me that.
It also taught me to take the guilt out of my guilty pleasure reads. Reading is about relating to other people, not impressing them. I refuse to feel ashamed of my late night dates with Mr. Darcy, or whoever my book boyfriend happens to be on any given night. We all need to practice a little self-care and clear our minds every once and awhile. When you pick up a book, you can do that and so much more.