During office hours for an Advanced Composition course I took in college, my professor sat me down and asked me who I liked to read.
“Oh, you know,” I said, looking around at his shelves full of books with spines listing name after name I didn’t recognize. “Thoreau, Emerson, T.S. Eliot.” I shrugged. “Those guys are good.”
My professor rolled his eyes. “Oh no, you’re one of those,” he said, getting up from his chair. “I meant, who are you reading that’s not dead, male, and white?”
That’s when I puffed my burgeoning baby-author chest up and played my hand: “Well, actually, I just finished Infinite Jest,” I said proudly, a literary hipster in the making.
My prof squinted at his shelf. “I’m sorry to say he now falls into the dead white guy category, too.” This was in November 2008, shortly after David Foster Wallace’s suicide.
“Here,” he said, pulling paperbacks by Judy Budnitz and Aimee Bender. He dropped them in my lap. “Read these and then come talk to me.”
What he did then sent me down a wormhole to the world of contemporary literature, where I lived for long past graduation. I got real wise real quick about what the publishing industry entailed besides just print millions of copies of textbooks and Harry Potter. I learned about bestseller lists and major publishing houses—Penguin, Macmillan, HarperCollins, and all their offshoots. I got in the habit of reading everything on the nominee list from each year’s National Book Awards, National Book Critics Circle Awards, and Man Booker Prize. I kept up with major internet news outlets’ “20 Best Novels of 2017” lists and Buzzfeeds’ “40 Books you Have to Read in October” blogs. I even found literary Twitter, which exposed me to a huge range of new voices, but also threw me into the ultimate time warp: suddenly last week’s books felt like last year’s; suddenly 2015 felt like several millennia ago. One embarrassing recent example: I had always thought Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was a decades-old classic written when my parents were just learning to walk, but I learned just last week it came out in 2006.
Being a good reader requires letting yourself get lost in wormholes and having the strength to pull yourself out of them. As much as reading everything by anyone alive, female, or with more varied levels of melanin made me a more well-rounded person, I kept running into moments where I realized I was thinking things or saying things that were just as one-dimensional as before—only this time biased towards a trendy zeitgeist, rather than the Western classics canon. The way to combat that, I’ve learned, isn’t simply to rotate through a vigorous regiment of authors spanning multiple times and places (though that’s really, really fun to do), but instead to keep one thing in mind no matter what you’re reading: that history is a culture of its own.
You know that weird feeling you get when your grandpa or your crazy aunt tells you a story and you just can’t believe people ever lived like that (no texting? No GIFS? No Snapchat?). That’s not dissimilar to the way we try to wrap our minds around someone living differently than us in the present. The practice of learning history is the practice of learning diversity. There’s a reason we throw decades parties: it’s because each set of years has its own story, its own character, its own thing worth learning the specifics of and celebrating. If you’re not reading anything sort of old, you’re missing out on a huge piece of cultural perspective. If you’re not reading anything really old, you’re missing even more. This is because different histories have different cultures.
Perhaps more importantly, though, the flipside of that is equally true: different cultures have different histories. Reading one text from another culture gives you a peek at another culture, yes, but only within the specific time frame in which each narrative is written. It’s one thing to read contemporary culture; it’s another to track backwards through history to see which past worlds each story refers to and dialogues with. Try pairing Colson Whitehead with William Styron; Akwaeke Emezi with Chinua Achebe; even Trevor Noah with Nadine Gordimer. And even these are still considered contemporary fiction—so don’t be afraid to Google and Wikipedia-wormhole your way deeper and deeper back into collections of fables, medieval legends, and other ancient lore. Instead of checking boxes on your “ethical reader” exam sheet, be curious about the way stories survive and morph over continents and centuries.
Once you shatter your binary thinking about white and non-white literature or living and not-living authors, you realize you have ten billion histories to learn—and still only roughly 85 years to live. Thankfully, there are questions that can maximize your time, like, what role does this book play within this culture’s timeline? What happened before this in that place? What was happening in my country during that time? These questions work for every issue, not just race or gender: environmental literature goes way back further than you thought. Sci-fi goes way back further than you thought. Writing about work goes way back further than you thought. So for every current NYT bestseller you read off of that Buzzfeed list—whether it’s fiction or nonfiction—you should go thumb through a few volumes at the history section of your library, or click through to the tenth page of that Google search. What you find might be a classic you’ve never heard of before, or the lightbulb moment of perspective you needed to help you write your own.
By Melissa Hinshaw