Ten Years of Reading

In the summer of 2007, I attended the Columbia Publishing Course. One of the tasks we had to complete before we started was to make a list of our ten favorite books. “My desert island, all-time, top-five” as Rob from High Fidelity would say, which means no separate lists for fiction and nonfiction, or children’s and YA and adult, just ten favorite, full stop. Naturally we all agonized over these and spent the first week discussing each other’s lists; it was a great icebreaker.

What does “favorite” mean? We each had different definitions. For me, it means I’ve read it (or listened to it) more than once. It means if I see it in a bookstore, I will reach out and touch its spine, even if I already have a copy (or more than one) at home. It means I’ve recommended it to others, probably many times.

It’s been a decade since that first list, and I wondered how different my list would look if I made it today. Which books on the original list would still be there if I made a new list? I’ve read a lot of books over these past ten years – 1,200 books is probably a low estimate – have any of them become favorites? And could I find the original list, to compare?

Turns out the answer to that last question was yes, because I may be a pack rat with a Depression-era mindset who saves kitchen string, but I am a highly organized pack rat; I found the list in less than fifteen minutes. Actually, what I found was a much longer list, divided into sections (children’s/YA and adult) with stars next to ten titles.

Favorite Books
May 26, 2007

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
The Face on the Milk Carton/Whatever Happened to Janie?/The Voice on the Radio by Caroline B. Cooney
The Boggart by Susan Cooper
The Bean Trees/Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
The Golden Compass/The Subtle Knife/The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
The Brothers K by David James Duncan
Griffin & Sabine by Nick Bantock

The careful reader will notice that there are more than ten books on the list, because I used series to sneak extra ones in. I’m a little surprised at some of the books that aren’t there – A Wrinkle in Time, The Perks of Being a Wallflower – but a list of ten means tough choices.

[Note: This has been in my drafts folder for nearly a month, because I kept trying and failing to winnow my new list down to ten. But no one has set this assignment for me, and I have as much space as I like, so…fifteen it is!]

Favorite Books
Summer 2017

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
*The Golden Compass/The Subtle Knife/The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
*The Bean Trees/Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver
*Griffin & Sabine by Nick Bantock
*The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
*The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer
To A Fault by Nick Laird (poetry)
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The Likeness by Tana French
Greenglass House by Kate Milford
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Honorable mention to Maggie O’Farrell, possibly my favorite fiction author I’ve discovered in the past few years without a book on this list.

What are your all-time favorite books? Are you made of sterner stuff than I, and able to keep your list to ten?

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We Need Diverse Books

The most recent issue of Kirkus is a “diversity issue,” with about 40 pages of articles and essays that give different perspectives on diversity in literature. I’m still making my way through it, but I loved this quote from author Padma Venkatraman:

“Books are more than mere mirrors or windows; they are keys to compassion. And novels don’t just expose readers to differences, they allow readers to experience diversity. They allow us to live within another’s skin, think another’s thoughts, feel the depths of another’s soul. Novels transport, transform, and, most importantly, allow us to transcend prejudice. When we immerse ourselves in characters whose religions are different than our own, our empathy is enhanced. We move closer to embracing people of all religions.”

It reminded me a bit of the way Neil Gaiman talks about fiction (“Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been”), and what Caitlin Moran wrote in her essay “Alma Mater” about growing up in the library:

“The shelves were supposed to be loaded with books – but they were, of course, really doors….A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination….They are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen instead.”

When Venkatraman writes about mirrors and windows, she is referencing Rudine Sims Bishop’s 1990 article “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” Books that are mirrors reflect the reader’s self and own world back at them; books that are windows show the reader another person or people and world; books that are sliding glass doors allow the reader to “enter” another world.

The San Antonio Public Library page “Diversity in the Classroom: Building Your (Early Childhood) Library with Mirrors and Windows” has a video clip of Bishop from January 2015. In it, Bishop says, “Children need to see themselves reflected, but books can also be windows, so you can look through and see other worlds, and see how they match up or don’t match up to [your] own. But the sliding glass door allows you to enter that world as well, so that’s the reason diversity needs to go both ways.” She says that just as children of color need to see themselves in books, white children – who see plenty of themselves in books – need to see characters of other cultures, races, and religions as well, to provide a more accurate picture of the world as it is (“colorful”).

The #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement FAQ page cites an infographic produced by multicultural publisher Lee & Low Books (“About everyone. For everyone”), which used statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center and census data. Although 37% of the U.S. population are people of color, only 10% of published children’s books contain multicultural content. Note that that includes books where the main character might not be a person of color, and it also doesn’t mean that the author was a person of color.

We Need Diverse Books virtual buttonWhere do we go from here? We need more diversity at all levels of publishing, in libraries, in schools, in the bookselling business. We need to write, publish, read, and promote diverse books; “multicultural books don’t sell” is no longer a valid argument, if it ever was. We need more stories about more different people and places. We’re getting there, but too slowly.

8/17/17 Edited to add:

As I made my way through the rest of the issue, I found two more quotes I wanted to share. The first is from Megan Dowd Lambert, an author, senior lecturer in children’s literature at Simmons, and Kirkus reviewer; she in turn is quoting Mary Robinette Kowel:

“It’s not about adding diversity for the sake of diversity, it’s about subtracting homogeneity for the sake of realism.”

Though our society is far more segregated than it ought to be, and some kids may rarely see people outside of their own race, culture, or class, the world is “colorful” and literature ought to reflect that. In fact, books are where many people encounter new ideas and perspectives and learn about the world. “Armchair traveling” isn’t just for seeing the lives of ancient royalty, dangerous mountain-climbing expeditions, or sea voyages; it may be a way to see into the next neighborhood.

“…Disability comes from scarcity and environment and other people’s prejudices as much as the body. Silencing the word can silence real injustices, emotions, and experiences. Diverse books are tools for empathy, but we can’t address what we won’t say.”

This is from Amy Robinson, children’s librarian and Kirkus reviewer. She makes an important point about environment contributing to disability. Are our built environments inclusive, or do they present barriers? (Do elevators work? Are aisles wide enough? Are there ramps or only stairs? Is signage large and clear? Are there curb cuts on sidewalks? Are sidewalks even or broken, covered in snow or cleared?) In many cases, a disability may only present extra difficulty because of obstacles in the world – in the built environment or as part of prevailing cultural and societal ideas. Let’s figure out what those obstacles are (it’s often very hard to imagine, so ask people who confront them) and start removing them.