Lately, while we are all on new ground with Covid-19 and quarantine, I thought it might be a diversion to talk about our reading comfort zones. We are most of us living outside our comfort zones right now, anyway, so it seems apropos. A big passion of mine is to try to encourage people to read more diversely, be more aware of blind spots or failures within the publishing industry, and to boost readership and marketing for authors in marginalized communities. To do these things in my own reading life, I use various reading challenges like Book Riot’s Read Harder, Pop Sugar’s annual reading challenge, or Goodreads’ A-Z Challenge.
I like these kinds of reading challenges because they all have at least one category that I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of reading myself. Which is, of course, the point. Over the years of doing reading challenges, I have learned of some excellent authors that I would not have read had it not been for a challenge task. Some of my favorite tasks have, in past years, included reading a debut novel by an author of color or member of the LGBTQ community; a book in any genre by a Native American, First Nations, or Indigenous author; a book by or about a refugee; a nonfiction STEM book written by a woman; a classic you have never read; a book that won either a LAMBDA, Audie, or Booker award (or all of the above); a book written in the year you were born; a book about a religion other than your own; a book about a food cuisine you have never tried before; and a mystery where the victim(s) is not a woman or child. I haven’t always liked the books I’ve selected for these reading challenge tasks, but that’s ok. I am never sorry for having read a book, even if I didn’t like it much, and if it does some good to bring more awareness to an issue, then I consider it time well spent.
What usually happens, though, is that I do end up enjoying the books, and sometimes they even turn into one of my favorite books ever. A couple years ago, one of the challenges I was doing called for reading a Western. I do not do Westerns. I don’t like Western movies, I don’t like cows, I don’t like gun fights, I don’t like many of the things that make Westerns, Westerns. So, I was not too thrilled about that particular task. I picked a book that was definitely a Western but was written by an author I was already somewhat familiar with. And it ended up being one of my favorite books I read in that year! If you’re curious, I picked Doc: A Novel by Mary Doria Russell. I listened to it on audiobook from the library and loved it so much I got my own copy of it from Audible, as well as its sequel.
I have read some classics that I somehow managed to miss throughout my college and grad school years. I’ve read books that are beloved and been confounded as to why they are so popular; I’ve read books that got panned and felt they were among the best literature I’ve ever encountered. I’ve learned about more things to look for when trying to find a new book or author to try. And, most importantly, I’ve had a ball doing it. For me, reading is and always has been an escape, not something that should be a chore or something that causes any stress. So what if you don’t finish that reading challenge? So what if you only read 10 books all year but had planned to read 100? Did you have fun in the process? Then that is all that matters.
Here are a few of the books I have learned about from various reading challenges and ended up loving, in no particular order. Have you done any reading challenges? Where or how do you learn about new books and authors? What books did you discover that you wouldn’t have otherwise?
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (debut novel by a person of color)
- Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (an award winner [Booker, in this case])
- A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena (MG/YA book set somewhere other than Europe/US)
- Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (book turned to film/TV show)
- Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal (about a culture you are unfamiliar with)
- The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson (by a trans or gender fluid author)
- Angels in America by Tony Kushner (a play by an LGBTQ writer)
- The Reckless Oath We Made by Bryn Greenwood (protagonist with a mental health disorder)