Photo: John Nakamura Remy
A FEW YEARS AGO, I wrote an article for Matador about the best travel books to read while traveling. I was super proud of it, and then, of course, a friend commented: “Kind of a lot of white dudes on that list, huh?”
My initial reaction was to be supremely annoyed. “Oh, just… goddammit,” I thought. “Can it not be about that just this once?” But I opened the piece back up and read through it — every single one of my ten authors was a white male. I felt a little uncomfortable, so I went onto my Goodreads account, where I keep a categorized list of every book I’ve ever read, and I checked.
Nope. With zero exceptions, every single travel book I’d ever read was written by a white man. Which got me thinking — why? I’ve read comparatively few books by women in my life, but there’s no good reason for it. They certainly haven’t been of lower quality. I don’t think there’s anything about white men that makes them inherently better at writing than women or people of color.
So why had I never picked up, for example, Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost? Or Cheryl Strayed’s instant classic Wild? Hell, even Eat, Pray, Love would’ve broken my shameful no-ladies streak.
Your reading choices influence you in subconscious ways.
When it got down to it, my two favorite travel writers, Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson, were very much like me. Both were raised in the same general area as me (I’m from Cincinnati, Ohio, Thompson was born a short drive away in Louisville, and Hemingway’s from Illinois), both trained as journalists like me, and both were wounded idealists.
In short, they didn’t take me at all outside my comfort zone. Everything I read of theirs electrified me by how right it all felt. And that helped me gloss over some of their less likable features. Hemingway was a drunk and a misogynist and a bit of a brute. Thompson blew his talent by taking WAY too many drugs. Both were plagued by depression and eventually killed themselves. As I started to slide into a mild depression myself, I started to worry. I loved their writing and wanted to write like them, but I did not love their end.
What we choose to read affects the way we see the world. A recent study found that children who read Harry Potter were more likely to be empathetic and kind towards groups that they did not belong to. This shouldn’t be too surprising: Potter writer J.K. Rowling used to work for Amnesty International, and is a tireless opponent of racism and classism. Indeed, anti-discrimination and kindess is the main theme of the entire seven-book series. The books we read shape us in often unseen ways.
Women, people of color, and foreigners
After the “no women” incident, I decided to make a concerted effort to get more women into the rotation. I still have a pretty dismal record — of the books I’ve read, only 9.5% were written by women. That’s up from around 6%, though.
Then, after the 2016 election, I realized that there was still a staggering lack of people of color on my list. Aside from a few obvious, big-name writers — Salman Rushdie, Junot Diaz, and Martin Luther King, Jr. — the list was basically a string of pasty white.
Finally, just this week, my colleague Morgane Croissant told me something that shocked me: In the English-speaking world, about 2 to 3 percent of what publishers put out are translations. In France, the number is 27%. In Spain, it’s 28%. We English speakers, it seems, just aren’t that interested in reading books from other cultures.
There were more foreigners on my reading list than women or people of color. But I realized, as I read through them, that the foreigners were responsible for a disproportionate amount of my favorite books. Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist’s classic vampire story, Let the Right One In, Russian Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Chinese writer Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Danish writer Carsten Jensen’s swashbuckling epic, We, the Drowned, Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges’ unbelievable Labyrinths collection… the foreign-language books I’d read were almost uniformly amazing.
The reason why seemed obvious — if you’re reading a book in another language, it’s probably one of the best books in the other language. It has to be, to be one of the miniscule number of books that are translated to English.
Studies suggest that, to your brain, reading a book can be more or less indistinguishable from transporting you into the body of another person. As George R.R. Martin put it, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one.”
There are, no doubt, a lot of great white male writers. But why live a thousand lives entirely like your own? Why not live a thousand different lives?