Read More Authors That Don't Look Like You
We like to be comfortable. Perhaps it's not a terrible thing in theory. Modern advances perpetually continue, and we, as a result, become more and more comfortable. The problem though is never with comfort itself. The real issue can be found in the complacency that often accompanies comfort, and complacency is as vicious of a poison as this world has ever seen.
Complacency shows itself in every area of life. It is prevalent in economics, politics, religious beliefs, and even leisure. Within each of these realms complacency can be disastrous, however, because of complacency's own nature, people are unlikely to even care about said disaster until it's too late.
This essay is not to caution or warn against complacency as a whole. That is far too much ground to cover. Instead, I'm looking to direct attention to one area that could possibly have more influence than anything else in society, literature.
Some say that times are changing. Others say that times have already changed. Either of those statements can be used to support an argument that discredits the power of literature in the modern world.With the rise of expedited information through social media platforms and the ease of access to the internet, books appear to have taken a backseat in the new age-- or at least some think so.
Whether or not physical copies of books cease to be printed is not the question here. I tend to believe that there is enough book lovers out there to keep the industry afloat, and even if it were to sink, an eventual resurgence would be bound to happen. If though, printed copies disappeared completely, it would not affect the power of literature in the slightest. Literature is not and should not be seen as being synonymous with physical paper. A book only holds the story presented, it is not the story itself, nor is the ideas that lie within the story. As long as stories continue to be told, literature can never die, and as a result it will remain one of the most influential things in society.
So, if we are to venerate literature to such a degree and see its inherent value as a method of sharing diverse ideas in the world at large, we would agree that complacency in the literature we absorb is a deplorable thing that could lead to catastrophe (or at least avoidable ignorance). For to read only what we are already comfortable with is surely a dagger to any form of real societal progression. And in case you didn't realize it, our society at its current state is in no shape to be left as is.
The real problem that arises from a call to abandon complacency in what we read is that people largely read certain books because those books are simply, what they like. In some ways, they don't deny other books out of prejudice, but rather preference. This is not to be objected to, because preference by definition is a subjective entity. People, at least in a country that is still free, are entitled to their opinions and reading preferences. And if their preference is to read one author over another, who should challenge them in that? Subjectivity, in the end, rules out, as it rightly should. But what if one were to question not their preference, but instead their reason for preferring one thing over another?
I can not speak for others, only myself, and thus I lean on my own experience with the topic. Before graduate school I had not read many books from people who looked differently than me (that included women writers, African American writers, Asian writers, and countless other writers). The one's that I had read were either assigned to me as homework, or presented within a subject matter that I was still rather comfortable with. To me, it was innocent. I liked what I liked, and didn't think too much about who wrote them, or whether or not they looked like me. I truthfully only cared if I could see myself in what they wrote, and often times I did very easily-- especially if the protagonist was a white male.
Eventually, as graduate school tends to do, my boundaries were challenged. I was tasked with reading a book by an African America author named Ta-Nehisi Coates. The book was called Between the World and Me, and in essence it was a father's letter to his son regarding the challenges that he had faced as a black man in America. This letter was filled with fear, vulnerability, and passion. Though I could not relate, not really, I felt sincere conviction in my heart as I read, and by its end, I felt tears forming in my eyes. My perspective was changed, and not just in my complacency of literature, but also in my complacency of society itself. I realized that I had been passive in important societal matters. No, I had not actively been working against people who looked differently than me, but in my passivity I was no ally, and instead a silent contributor. Author Dietrich Bon Hoeffer, who was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, is credited with a quote that says it best, "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Coates' book was a paradigm shift for me. I could no longer view the world the same, and quite honestly, I could no longer be the same. But what if complacency in literature had prevented me from reading something outside of my preference? What if I had convinced myself that there was nothing to gain from reading an author that was so unlike me? Sadly, this happens all of the time. Smart, well educated people are missing out on vital information and transformational ideas, simply because they would prefer to not be challenged.
Since my experience with Coates, I've gone on to read countless other authors who look very different than me. Authors like James Baldwin, Roxanne Gay, and Zora Neale Hurston, all have helped educate me further, opening new doors for both my mind and my heart. And while some writers I've read are more challenging than others, the overall insight I've received has been overwhelmingly positive.
It may go against one's natural grain to read outside of their comfort zone, but when the challenge is willingly and intentionally accepted, new levels of growth can take place. If society, as a whole, spent more time seeking diversity with a sense of humility, society itself could experience much needed growth. If, however, people remain firmly planted in their own complacency, we can only expect more of the same.
My appeal is simple, read more authors that don't look like you.