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On Trying to Read Diversely

2013 June 24
by Hannah Gómez
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diversity images

Graphic courtesy of cci.utk.edu

If you read book blogs (obviously), you’re probably familiar with “diversity challenges,” in which a reader tries to expand his or her reading tastes and worldview by reading books only by female authors for a year, or one writer of color a month, or a book from the perspective of every letter of QUILTBAG, or what have you. The people who set these challenges for themselves are avid readers, and generally they start off their challenge by noting the great disparities that exist in literature when it comes to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability, or probably some other things I am forgetting to mention.

Don’t get me wrong. I have said things like this in my own blog before, and I completely support anyone who is identifying the clear problems in publishing (all areas, but for the purposes of you Hub readers, we’ll go with YA) when it comes to having too many white ladies writing about white ladies, and too little of everything else. And, of course, any time you are trying to read more books more of the time, you are doing something right.

But there’s something about such challenges that makes me uncomfortable. Well, actually a lot of things, but let’s assume that you are already fairly well versed in issues of privilege and diversity in YA (it’s all over the blogosphere, but you can even stay right here at the Hub to get some background). My librarian-specific issue has to do with what you were doing before you decided to read diversely. Because to me, it seems like saying that you’re “trying to read diversely” means you’re already doing it wrong.

I’m assuming that one of the major reasons you got into library science was that you love to read. Admit it. Much as we love reference and readers’ advisory, cataloging, community programs, or whatever else makes library work your chosen career, we’re all really here because we love to read, right? And there’s that thing they say about librarians — something about how we’re librarians because we want to be experts at everything. That, at least, is one of the biggest things that informs my reading. I naturally want to know a little bit about everything.

That’s why I don’t really understand having to be forced (even if you force yourself) to read diversely. My question is: why (and how) were you not doing that already? Even if you’re not a person who wants to know about everything, if you’re a librarian, it’s your job to know what’s out there so that you can inform other people.

For me, I find out about new books (by which I mean new to me, not just new to the world) from everywhere: characters or writers mention books in the books I’m already reading; I get attached to authors and decide I have to read everything they wrote; I read roundups and best-of lists for all kinds of themes; my friends tell me to read things; I troll bookstores; I read blog after blog and learn about titles I may have missed or about debuting authors. And aside from noting whether a particular genre or plot device grabs me, one of the biggest things that grabs me is that it’s something I’ve never read about before or haven’t read about for a long time. That’s it. Simple.

How do you feel about the idea of diversity challenges? Is it a crutch or a necessary thing to get you out of a reading rut? Would you rather set up a challenge with criteria and reading lists or diversify the sources where you get your book news and recommendations?

— Hannah Gómez, currently reading City of a Thousand Dolls by Miriam Forster

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9 Responses
  1. June 24, 2013

    Probably BECAUSE librarians love to read, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut of reading the books you personally prefer, and anything that gets you to pick up a book that’s maybe out of your comfort zone is a good thing. Sure, some people read widely naturally. But others (myself included!) may be more likely to pick up the next book in their preferred genre or by their favorite author instead of stretching and trying something new. Reading widely is something that I do consciously, not naturally. I don’t participate in challenges on my blog, but I’ve challenged myself and my staff to read in a variety of genres this year, which has helped improve our readers’ advisory.

  2. Cari permalink
    June 24, 2013

    Does it make me a bad Teen Librarian if it never occurred to me to “read diversely?” (I didn’t even really know it was a thing people did…) I tend to read whatever strikes my fancy with little mind to whether or not it would fit under the “diverse” umbrella. I have so little time to read, much less read for pleasure, that I refuse to read anything that doesn’t sound interesting/good.

  3. Diane Colson permalink
    June 25, 2013

    Hannah, thank you for raising this issue in such a sensitive yet direct manner. I read like you do, following tangents and getting curious and wanting to read books with great reviews. But I have worked with librarians who don’t read widely. They know what is popular, which authors are “like” other authors, and stay on top of professional reviews. For their own personal reading, however, they like history books or cozy mysteries or paranormal romance, or whatever.

    These folks might benefit from a diversity challenge. But I have to say that such librarians can still be excellent at readers advisory. So many patrons are looking for the kinds of books that tend to be popular – readable, gripping, fantastical, true-to-life, etc. Librarians who are quick to recommend titles that generally fit the “good book” qualification do well with a large block of readers advisory requests.

    YA is different, in my opinion. Although not all teens are looking for recently published books, many of them gravitate towards whatever is current. That does take some reading work for YA librarians, I believe, to stay on top of trends and variations within trends.

    “Diversity in reading” always strikes me as a code phrase that means books with characters from a racial minority. Admittedly, this is probably overly simplistic. But I do notice that teens like books with characters that are like themselves. In a racial sense, this results in a kind of majority rules situation when selecting books for an individual collection. I can speak from experience that it can be hard to find a variety of satisfying materials for black and Hispanic kids, and frustrating to see white kids routinely pass over books that look “ethnic.”

    To what degree do patron choices determine the diversity of a collection? As long as purchasing budgets are tight, I would say it counts quite a lot.

    • June 25, 2013

      @Diane – It’s absolutely a code word for “racial minority,” as is “multicultural,” which drives me crazy, because a book about only black people is not multi, it’s just not monocultural white. But yes, that is mostly what I’m talking about, though lately it’s being expanded most often to include LGBTQI and (dis)ability. And yes, I can talk for hours on how this has to do with collection development dollars and publishers claiming to care about diversity but not wanting to be the first to do something revolutionary or to take a risk (I can understand the money angle, but I also think they should be using some of the money they make on celebrity books that are sure sells to experiment with smaller, more innovative and new titles), but I was also just curious about how and why people participate in personal reading challenges to take advantage of what’s already out there. When I’m done with my current pile of books, I intend to take a look at some hi/lo and “urban” titles, since I know about them and I know who publishes them, but I never ever read them. But I’m not giving myself a quota or anything, which many of these book challenges tend to do.

      @ Cari and Abby – thank you for your comments! Maybe I’m assuming “diversity challenges” are wider spread than they are? And Cari, I think it’s great not to notice you’re not reading diversely – I don’t think I was always conscious of how wide my tastes were, but sometimes it’s interesting to do an inventory (I fully admit that I am obsessive compulsive about mentally cataloging my media collections, and I have goodreads to help me organize what I’ve read) and see how many men vs. women you’re reading, white vs. PoC, fiction vs. nonfiction, etc.

  4. Molly Wetta permalink
    June 25, 2013

    I know it’s possible to have good reader’s advisory skills just by keeping up with reviews/lists/etc, but I have a hard time selling a book I haven’t read. To me, “reading diversely” means not just making sure I explore books written by or containing characters from different racial and ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds or making sure I stay up on queer lit, but to also explore a variety of genres and formats and to try out debut authors. With so many choices and daunting TBR lists, I think challenges help people organize their reading.

  5. June 26, 2013

    I have on occasion tried to participate in a “diversity challenge.” I also took a multicultural literature class in school. I tend to read a lot of fantasy/sci-fi, so I took these chances to read outside of those genres. The focus was never solely on racial minorities (though they were included). I live in an area that thinks it is still mostly middle-class Caucasian, and so books that emphasize that worldview are prominent. I’ve found some great books and authors through these challenges that have broadened what I read now. I think the important thing is the intent in taking on the challenge. If it is because you somehow feel guilty about what you read, that seems problematic, because as you said, it implies you were reading “wrong” before. If it’s an honest attempt to broaden your horizons, understand a different perspective, I see nothing wrong with any method people take to accomplish those goals. It’s easy to fall into one way of thinking and only read books that reaffirm that point of view. Reading is an easy way to find new ways to look at the world. As a (hopefully soon) librarian, I want to have some understanding of what my patrons go through. Some things I can never experience in real life, but books give me that experience vicariously. I also do challenges to read other genres, read books from different settings, or read books about different time periods. It’s just a way to direct my path through the millions of books out there.

  6. Ann Voss permalink
    June 27, 2013

    When a box of new books arrive, it is a holiday for me. I look for titles I ordered that were outside my comfort zone, and read them first. Oh, I may look longingly at a title I have been waiting for, but it will have to wait. By the end of the year I have read across the genres, including some subgenres. My comfort level is expanded, and my RA skills have as well.

  7. June 28, 2013

    I speak as a retiree, and as an author who writes both diversity and multicultural YA books, and those things ARE different. I think the idea of a challenge more relates to how difficult it is to find multicultural fiction in the sea of whiteness. I have heard many people bemoan the lack and give lectures to library groups that the material is there if you search, but in many cases you do have to search. So I applaud people being willing to challenge themselves and others to get out there and find the material, not just what is popular, on the best-seller lists and even on the YALSA lists. Because so much of the diversity and multicultural books never get a wide audience, don’t get reviewed and do not get seen. So to me, the challenge to get outside the normal limits is a good thing.

  8. June 28, 2013

    I’m really glad I brought up this subject when there are so many varied opinions. Hope to see some of you at ALA this weekend and talk about it in person!

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