Year of Expanded Reading Wrap-Up ... Sort Of

Year of Expanded Reading Wrap-Up ... Sort Of

So, 2020 was supposed to be my “Year of Expanded Reading,” a year to focus on reading non-white and/or non-American authors. I came across the challenge to do this year-long project when my first son was under a year old. I remember thinking, “My life feels too chaotic to undertake a yearlong project right now, but maybe when he’s about three or so.”

In keeping with that rather vague goal, I felt ready to start this project last January, when my son was two and half and motherhood no longer felt like it was occupying an inordinate amount of my headspace. But on January 11, I found out I was pregnant again. I spent the next three months sleeping whenever my son was asleep (and sometimes when he wasn’t) and puking when he was awake. There went all my reading time.

My Year of Expanded Reading bookshelf, minus the books I actually managed to read this year.

When I started to emerge from my first-trimester haze and consider rejoining “normal life,” normal life disappeared to a global pandemic. I lost a lot of the parental support system I had begun to cultivate, falling victim to social distancing. I continued to utilize a couple trusted babysitters so I could keep up with my freelance commitments, but utilizing them so I could do more reading or writing felt indulgent. My son dropped his nap in June, and the obligatory pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum books encroached upon the reading time that I still managed to find. And then my second son was born at the end of August, and well, Juno totally called it: babies are a time-suck.

My epic shortfall on my Goodreads reading goal (46 out of 75 books) reflects that I missed almost as many books as I managed to read, and not all of them were Expanded Reading books.

I’m not beating myself up over it — I think last year looked differently from ALL our expectations in the oh-so-innocent January 2020 — but I do feel a little disappointed that I wasn’t able to devote nearly the amount of time or thought to this project that I wanted to. But even if I had been able to fully invest myself in it, one thing is clear: one year would not have been enough. I could have spent a whole year on any one subset of expanded reading (African American writers, European writers, Latinx writers, etc.) and still only absorbed a small fraction of the diversity these minds have to offer.

One of the things I noticed early on was that I wasn’t really loving a lot of the books I was reading. Mostly three-star reviews — average — which I give out pretty regularly anyway. But this felt a little different. It made me realize that so much of what we consider an “amazing” book often has to do with how well we RELATE to that book, how articulately another human being has captured OUR experiences. That’s what makes a book resonate, and it’s a very limited way of seeing what constitutes an amazing read.

As a teen services librarian, I remember coming across the idea that books could serve as “mirrors” or “windows.” A “mirror” reflects back your own experience, which is validating. A “window” gives you a glimpse into someone else’s reality. Both are iimportant, of course, but I wonder if the majority of us give preferential treatment to “mirror” reading. I know that I do. We all seek to be understood and seen, and the intimacy of a book can often do that even better than another human. But maybe if we spent more time with “window” reading, we could develop not only more compassion for ourselves and our experiences, but for the experiences of others. And sometimes, we might even be surprised by the overlap — finding a “mirror” in what we thought was a “window.” (Windows are also reflective, after all.) Books should serve both to remind us of how we are different and of how we are the same.

Another thing I noticed is that almost every book written by a person of color made reference to that identity throughout the narrative, even if it wasn’t central to the plot. It was a reminder of how much we still see whiteness as the “default,” something that doesn’t need to be remarked upon in any way, whereas the dominant culture does not allow those who live as minorities to have the luxury of just ignoring that facet of their identities. (For clarification’s sake, I feel it’s necessary to mention that a minority group is one that does not hold most of the power in a culture, NOT the one that has fewer numbers. As the demographics of the U.S. change, people of color will easily outnumber those of European descent, but this doesn’t make white people a “minority” until people of color hold most of the power.) When I read books written by non-American, white authors, race or ethnicity was also similarly ignored.

Aside from those observations, there is no sweeping pronouncement I can make about the books I read this year or the experiences of those who wrote them, which is exactly as it should be. Below is a list of everything I read that fits the reading project’s definition, with links to my reviews and a couple thoughts on anything that felt particularly salient.

My Year of Expanded Reading: The Books

(I realize that it is incredibly reductionist to refer to each writer by their race, nationality, or ethnicity alone. I do so here only to show how they fit my definition of “expanded reading,” the goal of reading books by non-white and/or non-American writers.)

  1. The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon (Jamaican-American writer)
  2. Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ (Nigerian writer) – This may be the book that sticks with me the most from this year. It was way outside my cultural frame of reference but portrayed a character going through experiences I have also been through — infertility, followed by eventual pregnancy and multiple children. Listening to it while I was pregnant was a somewhat harrowing experience, if I’m going to be honest.
  3. The Path To Love: Renewing the Power of Spirit in Your Life by Deepak Chopra (Indian-American writer) – This was the first book I started on this project, before I knew I was pregnant, and it took me MONTHS to finally finish it once the symptoms of early pregnancy took hold. One of the exercises in particular helped me make peace with the big transition looming in my life, and I will probably find myself returning to the insights from that exercise throughout my whole life. I feel like it showed me the first thing I really “knew” about Vincent, back when the only thing I knew was that he was coming (and not even that he was a he.)
  4. The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar (Indian-American writer)
  5. Silver Meadows Summer by Emma Otheguy (Latinx American writer of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent)
  6. The Inner Voice of Love by Henri Nouwen (Dutch writer)
  7. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (Canadian writer) – I felt like this one met the “letter” of the challenge but not the “spirit” of it. Writing from a white woman of Canadian descent is not that far removed from my usual fare of white writers of American descent. But I really wanted to read this one while it was still somewhat fresh so I could discuss with my husband.
  8. Pilgrimage to Dzhvari by Valeria Alfeyeva (Russian writer) – I wish this book would have talked more about how growing up in Communist Russia had impacted Valeria’s search for spirituality, but instead it felt a little bit like it happened in a vacuum or that certain things were just assumed to be within the reader’s frame of reference. Maybe they were for those who read it in the original Russian. Possibly my fault for being out of the loop, not the book’s.
  9. Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany Jackson (African-American writer) – One of those books that led me down a rabbit hole of learning everything I could about the events and themes that inspired the book. This one will stick with me.
  10. Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers by Celia Perez (Latinx-American writer of Mexican and Cuban descent)
  11. Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed (Pakistani-American writer)
  12. The First Rule of Punk by Celia Perez (Latinx-American writer of Mexican and Cuban descent)
  13. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz (Latinx-American writer of Mexican descent) – This was a re-read that I picked up again because my book club was reading it this year.
  14. The Sisters Matsumoto by Philip Kan Gotanda (Japanese-American writer)
  15. Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi (African-American writer) – Probably my favorite book I read for this project. I loved this book even though I didn’t really understand it.
  16. Ways to Make Sunshine by Renee Watson (African-American writer)
  17. Some Places More Than Others by Renee Watson (African-American writer) – I tried not to read the same author twice for this project, but I did for Renee Watson and Celia Perez because I interviewed them both for New Moon Girls. (Also, Emma Otheguy).
  18. Slant by Laura E. Williams (Korean-American writer) – I will forever remember this as the book I read when I spent the night in the hospital monitoring my baby after a fall. Exactly one week later, I was in the hospital again giving birth to him.
  19. Sophie Someone by Hayley Long (British writer) – The first book I read after my son’s birth.
  20. Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson (Jamaican-Canadian writer)
  21. The First Forty Days by Heng Ou (Chinese-American writer) – What a treat to have an obligatory pregnancy/postpartum book overlap with my Year of Expanded Reading!
  22. Falling Into Place by Amy Zhang (Chinese-American writer … who also happened to be 15 when she wrote this book) – This was a rare book written by a PoC in which all the characters were white. Amy Zhang addresses that a bit in this interview.
  23. The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary (British writer)
  24. Beartown by Fredrik Backman (Swedish writer)
  25. Becoming by Michelle Obama (African-American writer)
  26. The City of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers (German writer) – DEFINITELY my least favorite book of the year.

When I first looked back on my year, I was disappointed that I only managed to read 26 books that fit my definition of “expanded” reading — overall, a little over half of all the books I read for the year (46). Most of the books I read that didn’t fit my challenge were either pregnancy/postpartum/parenting books, book club books, or books I read for work. Anytime I was at liberty to choose my own books, I tried to read something that fit my challenge. And I guess managing to read one challenge book every two weeks despite everything else that happened in 2020 isn’t all that bad.

So, What’s Next?

Even though my Year of Expanded Reading is done now, I find myself more often drawn to and choosing books by authors outside of my established reading patterns. I read a handful of books early in the new year that didn’t make the cut-off date but fit my Expanded Reading definition.

I won’t be doing a focused challenge this year. But I am going to try to prioritize the various parenting books I have accumulated, mostly because I don’t want to be cleaning off my bookshelves 20 years from now when my boys are grown regretting not having read more that could have helped me and them during this time. And parenting two young children is an incredibly isolating experience even without a pandemic and social distancing in the mix. I found with my firstborn that reading books about and by parents was one of the best ways to feel connected to other parents in a season of life that I find to often be characterized by the kind of intense loneliness I have very little experience with as an introvert.