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In 2017, I want to expand my reading horizons

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Put down the phone and pick up a book

book shelf Stewart Butterfield

At the end of each year, I take stock of the books I completed over the last 12 months. For the past couple of years, I’ve followed through on one of my annual goals: read a book a week. If I toss my phone into a different room, that’s relatively easy to accomplish. Though a few other tricks help, too.

For example, it’s useful to plan ahead. My goal this year is to make a conscious effort to branch out, to read authors I would otherwise miss. I use Goodreads to keep track of what I’m reading at any given moment, and according to my stats for last year, I read a grand total of 58 books. Here’s the breakdown:

  • 20 science-fiction novels
  • 14 fantasy novels
  • 8 non-fiction books
  • 7 graphic novels
  • 4 horror novels

These genres are all approximate, but there are definitely imbalances here. I read more science fiction than fantasy, more male authors (38) than female authors (20), and not very many authors of color (5).

Now, let’s head off the arguments that gender or race don’t matter to the stories. On Twitter and comments sections, I regularly see claims that readers shouldn’t care about an author’s ethnicity or identity. I don’t buy that. Identity does matter. But I don’t see this as a political choice, as if I’m reading non-white and non-male authors to check some sort of imaginary box. No, the pleasure of a diversified reading list is new stories, new perspectives, new points of view.

The pushback against movements like #WeNeedDiverseBooks or the drama of the Hugo Awards always puzzles me. I read and immerse myself in stories because I want to be challenged. I want to dive into the experiences of a character who isn’t me. There’s a great quote from Marine General James Mattis from 2003, in response to a complaint from one of his officers that he was “too busy to read”:

“By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.”

This applies to more than just warfare, naturally. The words apply to business, history, society, and culture.

Looking over my own reading list of 2016, it’s pretty clear that I’ve widely read about characters who largely look and think like me. There’s nothing wrong with that: I enjoyed many of those books!

But we’re living in a multicultural society, one that feels increasingly divided and estranged. This isn’t just about the racial divide, it’s about income and political alignment. And small things, too. Star Wars vs. Star Trek; science fiction vs. fantasy; chocolate chip vs. mint chocolate chip. There’s no argument too small to draw sides on social media. Taking in new worlds, whether they’re the latest Afrofuturist adventure or a fantasy that shatters perceptions on gender, is a way to open my eyes in uncomfortable ways, and expose myself to new ideas and viewpoints. As General Mattis wrote, learning from someone else’s experiences enriches my own outlook on the world, and better prepares me for the future. I try not to read to reinforce my own perceptions of reality: I read to take in the vast, complicated nature of the world.

So my goal this year: expand my horizons and read more.

I want to pick up some books from a broader spectrum of the world, and from around the world. Left to my own devices, I’d read only space-opera novels or military histories. Last year, I grabbed a bunch of books that, a couple years ago, I would have likely skimmed and tossed aside. But N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season blew my mind with its innovative take on fantasy. Eliot Peper’s Cumulus is an exciting self-published thriller about the future of Silicon Valley.

I will seek out new books that I might not have taken the time to pick up. The first step? Making time to read. I can hit my target for reading a book a week this year, but if I really want to do more, I need to make sure I actually sit down and dive in. That means putting away my phone or tablet, ignoring the white noise of the internet, and sitting down in a comfortable chair to immerse myself in a new world. Facebook-scrolling is empty calories; a novel is a full meal for the mind.

Science fiction is chockfull of classics I’ve never gotten around to reading. I’ve got a handful of memoirs, history, and literary novels I’ve wanted to take a crack at. And I have Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno Garcia, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly, and the rest of Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy waiting on my bedside table. The first step is simply taking the time to pull the book off the shelf, select the audiobook, or open up the ebook and give it a try.