Turning to books to fill the holes in my knowledge

Mostly, I consider myself pretty well-read. I’ve continually had a book, with a bookmark in it, since I was in the first or second grade. I slowed down a little in high school and college because homework, but let’s be real–I haven’t not been reading a novel since I was like 8.

And yet, I am always, constantly, consistently floored by how poorly read I am. There is so much good stuff, so much important stuff that is missing from my “read” list, in part because it’s easy to get stuck in a rut, and when your favorite author has penned “at least 98” books, it’s really easy to read just him.

Thanks, Google.

Long ago, I made a rule that I wasn’t allowed to read more than one Stephen King book in a row, and as a result, I am NOT through my favorite author’s oeuvre. Which is great. I keep all my King books on their own shelf, and I keep my books-to-read on their own shelf. And by “shelf” I mean “separate book cabinet that is overflowing because I have a book-buying problem that I don’t ever want to solve.”

My last four reads

But that’s not to say I fill in the non-King spaces with good, quality literature. I primarily read to be entertained. Now that I’ve taken a stab at writing my own books, I especially appreciate a perfectly drawn phrase, a perfectly worded graph–which tends to point me toward “good” books. But not always: Aside from King, I favor memoirs and, lately, women’s fiction. And it’s easy for my books to be a little … well … white-washed. Lots of characters that resemble me–physically, personally, socioeconomically. Most of what I read was written in this millennium.

There’s something to be said for making a conscience effort to dip into literature that is new, that is unlike me, that doesn’t feel familiar or slip right on like a favorite pair of fuzzy socks: Simply put, it makes us look at things difference, to consider them in a new way.

A few years back, a friend gave me an, as she called it, Clit Lit curriculum, covering  women’s books through the decades starting in the 1950s. I read

  1. The Best of Everything,” by Rona Jaffe (1958)
  2. Valley of the Dolls,” by Jacqueline Susann (1966)
  3. Hollywood Wives,” by Jackie Collins (1983)
    (I apparently missed the ’70s novel? What the heck.)

I was a fascinating look into what was important to women in those years, into how they were treated in the work place and by men.

This year, I’ve been on a race kick, seeking out books about black characters and/or by black authors:

It’s not enough, I know, to submerge myself in mid-century feminism or black literature for a month in a half and say “Look how much I’ve learned!!” It’s not about that. It’s about identifying what’s missing for me–in my education, in my reading list, in my experience–and trying to fix that. These aren’t permanent fixes; reading a couple books isn’t going to make someone any more than a novice in women’s lib or the black experience. But I think it helps.

I often think about that study that came out a few years back that found reading literature can make us more empathetic. (The excerpt below is from Time.)

… (I)ndividuals who often read fiction appear to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and view the world from their perspective. This link persisted even after the researchers factored in the possibility that more empathetic individuals might choose to read more novels.

Oh, sure, it’s not a cure for ignorance, but it gets me to stop and think about something I might not have considered before. That can’t be a bad thing.

I’m currently reading something a little lighter, a palate cleanser, but I’d love to know what you read when you need something meaty. Smart. Something to make you see things differently.


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