My 2016 Reading Year

You guys I have been trying to write this post for weeks. WEEKS! Normally I LOVE writing about books, talking about books, sharing about books… this post feels like pulling teeth. What gives?

Safe to say that 2016 was a REALLY WEIRD year. For me, that weirdness extended to my reading. I read some AMAZING books at the start of the year… and then my track record went downhill. Fast. There were a lot of not-so-great reads, a lot of tried-to-reads. When I look over my books from the past year, one word escapes my lips: “Huh.”

That said… it’s not like it was a waste of a reading year. It’s NEVER a waste when you’re reading. All in all, I read 46 books (53 including all the “tried to read” books). Not quite as good as last year, but I’m not complaining.

I still made it a point to read diversely. Looking over how I did…

  • 31 books by woman – 67% of my total. (In 2013, it was 30%. Last year, exactly 50%.)
  • 11 books by people of color – so 23.9%. (In 2013, that number was 4.3%. Last year it was 19.5%.)

That second number seems embarrassingly low… even though it’s an increase over the past years. The sad thing? That’s my number when I’m paying attention. When I’m actively trying to read books by people who don’t look like me. Think how low it would be if I didn’t pay attention.

As far as picking favorites… well, the three books featured in my Winter Reading Recap are all up there: Station Eleven, The Fifth Season and Where’d You Go, Bernadette. That’s like, the motto of 2016: started out promising, ended with a dud.

BUT. There were some other gold stars amidst the “whomp, whomps.” They deserve highlighting.

Orleans by Sherri L. Smith

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At magical Hedgebrook, there is a magical library, filled exclusively with books written by alumnae. I spied Orleans on the shelves one night before dinner and brought it back to my cottage. I think it took me all of three days to devour it.

This story is set in New Orleans – but not as we’d recognize it. Ravaged by hurricanes, decimated by an illness known as Delta Fever, the city has been cut off from the rest of the country – literally, by a huge, guarded wall. Those who live within the walls are mostly divided into tribes based on blood type (a safety measure against spreading Delta Fever). ISN’T THIS ALREADY FASCINATING?? Smith does an AMAZING job creating a world that seems at once totally foreign and totally plausible. And if the setting weren’t enough – well, there’s the can’t-put-it-down plot as well.

The Gunslinger by Stephen King

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I had actually read this book years and years ago, back in high school… but weirdly, I remembered nothing about it. With the upcoming movie, I figured it was time for a re-read.

How did I not remember this book?? It is so crisp, so evocative, creepy in the best way possible. The man in black and the gunslinger are like two archetypes out of myth, yet they’re still their own well-rounded characters. This is a quick read, since it’s on the shorter side, but I’m looking forward to getting into the full series now.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

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I’m not normally a romance fan, but Book Riot is always trying to get folks to read different genres, and they’d recommended this one. Well, Book Riot, you were right. This book is pure unadulterated fun.

A modern re-telling of Pride and Prejudice, the book focuses on the Bennet family of Cincinnati. Our modern Mr. Bingley is a doctor and a reluctant contestant on a Bachelor-like reality TV show (of course), and Mr. Darcy is his neurosurgeon friend. Will Jane and Mr. Bingley find happiness? Will Jane and Mr. Darcy get over themselves and fall in love??

Well, of course. You know how this story ends. That’s part of the fun of it, though – knowing the outcome, and seeing how Sittenfeld reaches it.


I’m ending 2016 by re-reading an old favorite, To Capture the Castle. I figure if any year deserves a gentle ending, it’s this one.

What were your favorite books of the year? Any duds?

Oh, and if’n you’re interested in reading diversely in 2017, might I recommend the 2017 Book Riot Read Harder Challenge?

Winter Reading Recap

It feels weird to even THINK the word “winter” when Seattle hit 80 degrees last week. Part of me thought, “Screw it, I’m too late, I’ll skip this recap.” But then again… how can I pass up on talking about the books that kept me company during the 4pm dusks, the crazy windstorms, the rainiest winter on record? The books that you cozy up with next to a fire–those are the books worth talking about.

I’m continuing the trend of 2015 and reading ALL THE BOOKS. Ok, maybe not all. But a LOT. I read five books in March alone. Which I realize for some would probably not be defined as “a lot,” but for slow-poke me is something to brag about.

So I’m not going to tell you about ALL the books I read this winter, because we’d be here for ten years. Instead, you get the highlight reel.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

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I sometimes do this thing where everyone and their mom recommends a movie/TV show/book, and I say “Ok cool!” and never actually get around to viewing/reading it. That happened with this book. So many people told me how fun it was, and I said “Ok cool!” and never got around to reading it.

Why do I do these things??

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is written in the form of emails, school newsletters, classified correspondence, and random interjections by Bernadette’s 15-year-old daughter. Which COULD make for a terribly annoying book, but Semple pulls it off. This is fun. It’s a quick read with characters who seem at once outlandish and totally relatable. The book is set in Seattle, and man, does Semple nail this city. Or at least, a certain population of the city. Having grown up in Seattle, in a similar community to what Semple describes, the descriptions hit close to home.

There was one thing people hadn’t mentioned about this book–one thing that surprised me. At its heart, Bernadette has a message about creativity and success and what it means to be an “artist”–which is always going to involve some amount of failure. It’s about letting go of the past, picking up where you left off and starting over. Which can be a terrifying thing–until you realize that everyone does it, all the time, and most of the time things turn out alright.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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See story above re: everyone recommending a book and me ignoring it. You’d think I’d learn. Right after finishing this book, I dispatched this tweet to the universe:

This was a beautiful, haunting book about the end of the world—or rather, the end of humanity as we know it. The two are NOT the same, and I’m always struck by books that make that distinction. (Oryx and Crake has a similar theme.) Civilization may end, but the world itself is gonna keep on truckin’, altered and 100% fine without us.

This book explores so many themes it’s difficult to sum up, but I finished with one distinct impressions: it’s a book that really gets it, that gets what it is to be human and see everything that’s broken in the world and also see the tremendous, almost-so-big-it’s-painful beauty of the world.

I was lucky to hear Emily St. John Mandel speak at Seattle Town Hall shortly after reading this book. She is obviously an insanely smart woman. It was interesting to hear all the different sources she pulled from to create Station Eleven, from the history of pandemics to Elizabethan England to Star Trek to Calvin and Hobbes. Like Austin Kleon says–steal like an artist.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

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I don’t read much fantasy these days–which is odd, because thinking back on my childhood reading habits, I almost exclusively read fantasy. My grandparents introduced me to Redwall and I proceeded to read every single book in that series. I wanted to be Cimorene in Dealing with Dragons. And Harry Potter? What would summer have been without counting down the days to the next Harry Potter release? (Late apologies to my parents for insisting that they pre-order two hardback copies so that my sister and I could both devour it immediately.)

The Fifth Season made me realize that I need to read more “grown-up” fantasy. It winds together three separate-yet-connected stories set in a world beset by seismic and volcanic activity. Every few hundred years or go, a “fifth season” arrives–basically, a new “season” trigged by an earthquake or volcanic eruption that kills off most of the population. However, there are people called “orogenes” that can both trigger and control these earthly activities. Can you guess who our hero is?

Jemisin creates an enthralling, complex world full of political intrigue. The Fifth Season is heart-wrenching in parts, but it was so beautifully written that I couldn’t put it down. Apparently there is going to be a second book in this series…I’ll be first on the waiting list.

What have you been reading lately? Now that the weather’s warming up, I’m starting to take the books outside…if there’s anything dreamier than reading in a hammock, I don’t know what it is.

2015 Favorites

It’s not weird to me that 2015 is almost over — what’s weird is that 2016 is next. How is it that we’re suddenly in the future, where self-driving cars and computer watches and hover boards are all actual things that exist? And yet here at home, the height of normality reigns. I sit here in my sweatpants, drinking coffee out of my writer’s mug, while a cat purrs from the desk and a dog stares at me from the floor. These are all good things.

I’m excited for 2016. 2015 was a rough year in some ways, but it was also kind of magical. Restorative. There was a lot of travel, a lot of reading. I curled up into a cocoon and took care of me. And now I’m ready to bust out and say OH HAI to 2016.

But before we move on — a look back, as I do every year. My favorites from the past year — I’ll be eager to hear yours.

Movies

I did NOT want to go see this movie. I typically don’t like full-on action flicks, and one that was basically one long extended car chase…nooooo thank you. But I was cajoled… and five minutes into the movie, I was sitting there with my mouth open.

The visuals, the feminist plot, the crazy pounding music…I was hooked. I’d never seen any of the Mad Max movies before (and still haven’t seen the prior ones), so don’t know how Mad Max: Fury Road compares. But WHOA was it a kick to the nerves.

On the total opposite end of the spectrum: Inside Out. Thank you, Pixar, for creating yet ANOTHER movie that makes everyone in the theater cry.

Books

I just did my 2015 book re-cap, and I suppose all of those could be counted as “best of’s” for the year. But if I had to narrow it down… I’d go with The Sixth ExtinctionCreativity, Inc. and Half of a Yellow Sun. The first two because they kept me thinking long after I’d finished the books. And the last because — while it’s suuuuper depressing — it’s hauntingly beautiful and showed me a story I hadn’t encountered before.

Oh, and one more… I didn’t include this on my re-cap list, because it seemed like a bit of a cheat. But this year I re-read Watership Down, one of my all-time favorites. I read it on my trip to Greece (more on that later, I promise) — and I don’t know if it was the setting, or because it had been so long since I last read it, but I fell head-over-heels-in-love with this book all over again. Sitting overlooking a caldera, reading about the rabbits’ search for a new home, looking out to the endless sea and comparing this to the tale of Odysseus…that’s a memory that’ll stick.

Music

One band dominated the year for me. In April, we flew down to San Francisco to see them play because they didn’t have any upcoming concerts in the Seattle area. And when they DID come to Seattle in August… yup, we went to that show, too.

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And if I’d had the opportunity to see Alabama Shakes a third time this year? You’d better believe I’d be RIGHT THERE. The bands two albums are good — but if you can, go see them live. Brittany Howard is a powerhouse. Watching her play and sing, I got the distinct impression that I was watching someone very, very special…like, one day I’d be looking back and saying, “Yes, you young whipper-snapper, I saw Brittany in her early days. Go ahead, be jealous.”

If I had to pick one favorite song…I can’t. So here’s two.

 

Moments

Man. I hadn’t fully realized until I did that #2015bestnine thing, but 2015 was an epic year.

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Walking along the Cliffs of Moher. Discovering a sunken tree-fern forest at Blarney Castle.

Floating on Lake Washington with my bestie. Sitting at a picnic table at Crystal Mountain in the later summer sun, reading a a book next to my mom. Fly fishing and actually catching fish.

Swimming and snorkeling in the Aegean. Taking shots of raki with a Cretan restaurant owner. Basking in the sunset at the Acropolis.

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Attending the Hedgebrook writing workshop with my friend Val.

Driving through central Oregon with no AC, sinking into the heat like a lizard, reveling in the beauty that is Painted Hills.

I did SO MUCH this year — yet it still felt balanced. I need to strive for that in 2016 as well.

Food

You guys, do you know about taramosalata? It is SO AMAZING and SO NOT AVAILABLE in this country. I ate it every chance I got in Greece and now need to find the ingredients to make it at home. Byron will totally hate its fishy taste…but that just means more for me.

Speaking of fishy taste — Irish smoked salmon. I don’t know why, but it’s different than other smoked salmon. It’s smooth and silky and subtly sweet. It’s like biting into a piece of the ocean. I ate my weight in it and would happily eat it every day if I could.

Other than that…this was admittedly a weird food year for me. I started seeing a naturopath, did some allergy testing, and as a result cut out dairy, eggs and a whole lot of other crap for most of the year. I’m starting to eat them a bit now…but for a lot of the year, I was basically eating vegan.

So when I ate cheese? I REALLY relished it. You guys, cheese is AMAZING. If you can, eat it for every meal, every day.

I also developed a deep appreciation for hot toddies in Ireland that continued through the year. Hot toddies cure what ails you. Hot toddies are a dollop of sunshine on a cold, damp day. Which is a LOT of days in the Pacific Northwest, which means they’re basically the perfect Northwest drink.

What are your favorites from 2015

2015 Reading Recap

In the past, I’ve done seasonal reading recaps — but even if I hadn’t done my blog hiatus, that wouldn’t be possible because this year I read 46 BOOKS. (52 if you include my “tried to read” list).

How you ask? NO CLUE. In 2013, I read 23 books. In 2014, it was 24. I really don’t know what happened this year. It’s not like I read a bunch of short books, either. (Goodreads says my average book length was 297 pages.) Maybe I was just hungry for words.

So this year you’ll get the highlights reel — the books that stood out.

My main reading goal this year was to read diversely. Inspired by a Book Riot video, I made a point of paying attention to the authors I was choosing and ensuring I wasn’t reading all white dudes. How did that shake out?

  • I read 23 books by women authors — so exactly 50% of the total books I read.
  • 9 books were by non-white authors — 19.5% of my total.

That second number definitely could be higher — but here were my numbers before I started “paying attention”:

  • In 2013, 30% of the books I read were by women authors. 1 book was by a person of color (so, 4.3%).
  • In 2014, 50% were written by women. 12.5% were written by a person of color. (I started this diverse reading experiment in October 2014).

So it DOES make a difference. And I have to say — I discovered some authors I probably wouldn’t have otherwise, and absolutely loved. In fact, two of them have made the 2015 highlights reel…

Wait for it…

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

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Let’s start things off on an upbeat note, shall we? The Sixth Extinction lays out the argument that the earth is in the middle of a massive extinction event (there have been five other such events that we know of), and this one is being caused by humans. FUN, HUH? I’m not going to pretend that this is an uplifting read–but it IS an interesting one, and I think an important one. You’ll never look at frogs or bats the same way again, let me tell ya.

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer

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This book took me a loooong time to read. Like, a year. BUT. That’s because it’s A) physically large, which means I can’t take it on the bus, and B) DENSE. I would read two pages and then just sit for ten minutes, chewing them over. A guide to writing science fiction and fantasy (or really any type of “imaginative fiction”), Wonderbook is one of the most in-depth writing guides I’ve encountered. Most talk high-level theory — how to find motivation, how to find story ideas, how to “be a writer.” Wonderbook says: “What is a beginning? What should be in the beginning? What about the middle? The end? How do you build your world? How do you flesh out the characters? What info do you hide and what do you reveal?” It’s incredibly in-depth — and for me, came at a pivotal time in my book edits.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson

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I read most of this book on a plane and struggled not to annoy strangers with my awkward snort-laughter noises. Jenny Lawson is The Bloggess, who apparently is a rather famous Internet Person, but I was not aware of this when I picked up Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. I was drawn to the cape-wearing, skull-holding mouse on the cover. And if that weirdness appeals to you, you will most likely enjoy this book. A lot of it focuses on Lawson’s childhood in rural Texas — a childhood which involved baby raccoons wearing homemade jeans, turkeys following children to school, and live bobcats being thrown at boyfriends. What’s not to love?

Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman

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This is a quiet little book of weird, surreal stories. It is, as the title would indicate, about almost famous women — women who teetered on the brink of long-lived fame but never quite made it, for one reason or another. And these stories are fascinating. Did you know there was a wealthy British heiress who dated Marlene Dietrich and raced speed boats and operated an island in the Caribbean? Or that there was a set of conjoined twins who toured the vaudeville circuit in the 1920’s? When I finished each story, I’d run off to Google to learn more.

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull

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I read this book as self-assigned “work homework” — but ended up totally enthralled. Written by one of the founders of Pixar, Creativity, Inc. asks the question: how do you inspire creativity in a corporate environment? But the book is so much more than that. Catmull eloquently yet simply explains his viewpoints on creativity, storytelling, and how we perceive the world and others in it — all of which encouraged me to reevaluate how I tackle those issues. Plus, there are great behind-the-scenes details about the making of the various Pixar movies… and who doesn’t love a Pixar movie?

City of Thieves by David Benioff

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Earlier this year I started dabbling with a historical-fiction story, and a friend loaned me this book as a good example of the genre. I devoured it — a couldn’t-put-down, stay-up-all-night kind of read. It tells the story of Lev Beniov, a young man living in Leningrad during the Nazi siege, and his adventures trying to secure a dozen eggs in a city that is literally starving. It’s a masterfully told tale — made even better by the fact that it’s based on true events. (The author is Lev’s grandson.) And even though some horribly gruesome events take place, the book overall manages to have a lighthearted feel. No clue how Benioff pulled that one off.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

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Like We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, this was a surprising book; it went places I didn’t expect, and I liked it the more for that. This is the story of Alex Woods, a boy who’s struck in the head by a meteorite, and as such has a rather unordinary childhood. He eventually befriends a Vietnam veteran, Mr. Peterson, who shares with Alex his love of classical music and Kurt Vonnegut. I don’t want to tell too many details, as I don’t want to spoil anything. But in a nutshell: this book dealt with some unexpected moral complexities and handled them in a compelling, non-preachy way.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

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Book Riot had been preaching this book up and down, so I finally picked it up. At first I was skeptical — I hadn’t realized that the whole thing was written in verse, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get into it. But as it turns out, Woodson is a great writer — you don’t even notice that you’re basically reading one long poem. Brown Girl Dreaming tells the story of Woodson’s family, of her childhood split between South Carolina and Brooklyn, and of her burgeoning love of writing. I think it’s technically considered a children’s book, but don’t let that stop you — this is one everyone can enjoy.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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I read quite a bit of Adichie this year — including Americanah and We Should All Be Feminists — but Half of a Yellow Sun gets the honorable mention for being such a total gut punch. I mean that in the best way possible; this book grips you and won’t put you down until the last page. Set in the 1960s, Half of a Yellow Sun follows several points of view through the Nigerian Civil War (or, as the characters in the book would call it, the Biafran War). Adichie is a freakishly good writer; she creates characters that evoke both love, pity and disgust within the span of a few paragraphs. So, you know, real people. And even though you know how the story will end, you’re placed so solidly in this world that you hope maybe, just maybe, it will end differently.

What books stood out to you in 2015? I’m wondering if I can hit 50 next year…

Christmas Tradition

It amazed me the day I learned that people open Christmas presents at different times. Growing up, I thought everyone opened them on Christmas morning, like us. We couldn’t open any gifts prior to Christmas morning, without exception (which led to some very early wakeup times for my poor parents). You had to wait for Santa, after all.

Well, there was one exception.

On Christmas Eve, my sister and I were allowed to open one present each. Just one, that was it. And we couldn’t pick out the present — Mom picked them out, and she always knew exactly which ones to go for, placed strategically under the tree. She’d go and get them and deliver them to our waiting laps.

They were always books.

Now, I know for some children this would be a major disappointment — but not us. We knew those gifts were going to be books, and we were always excited about it. I can’t remember many specific books we received — I think there were several years of the Redwall series, probably some Calvin and Hobbes, Stephen King in later years — but I DO remember the end result: curling up with a brand-new book on Christmas Day, wrapping-paper carnage strewn about the floor.

As an adult, I’ve continued the tradition in my own way; all the kids in our life get books for Christmas. This year, two received The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs (one of my favorites as a kid). The little boy who recently moved to the big city gets Snowy Day (recommended by this great picture book blog). The almost-a-teenager gets Snow White and Rose Red, a book I absolutely loved at her age. The 3-year-old who believes in the “fairy tree” in her grandparents’ backyard gets Flower Fairies of the Garden.

I’m not always big on the holidays, and I often feel down about the consumerism of the season — but books? That’s one Christmas tradition I can 100% get behind.

Reading Diversely: A Follow-Up

Back in October, I shared a Book Riot video about reading diversely (aka, reading books written by non-white authors). The video’s creator, Amanda Nelson, encouraged readers to take a look at their “numbers” — the number of authors they’ve read vs. the number of authors they’ve read who are non-white — and try and improve those percentages.

So I accepted the challenge. How has 2014 stacked up after making it a point to read more diversely?

To recap from the last post:

  • In 2013, I read 23 books. 7 were by women authors, putting that percentage at 30%. 1 was written by a person of color, so 4.3%.
  • As of October, I’d read 21 books. 10 were by women (47.6%), and 1 has been by a person of color (4.7%).

And now, two months later?

  • So far in 2014, I’ve read 24 books. Exactly 50% were written by women. 12.5% were written by a person of color (Sherman Alexie, Haruki Murakami, and Octavia Butler).

12.5% obviously isn’t great — but it’s a lot better than my percentage last year (and the percentage this year was on track to be, before I decided to pay attention). It makes me hopeful that when I look back at my 2015 reading list, it’ll be more well-rounded. Or, as a recent Book Riot post put it:

We like books because they allow us to see the world from a new perspective, and sometimes we all need help even know which perspectives to try out. — “The Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge

How has your reading year shaped up so far? (I realize we still have 2 weeks of 2014 left…I personally plan on getting one more book squeezed in there!)

Reading Diversely

Last week I was wasting time getting up-to-date information on Twitter, when I stumbled upon a couple tweets by Amanda Nelson, the managing editor of Book Riot.

Curious, I watched Nelson’s video. Her point, in a nutshell: “If you’re not paying attention and doing it on purpose — reading diversely on purpose — what you’re going to do is read mostly white people.” Due to a LOT of different factors, the majority of books that people read are by white authors (and mostly white male authors, at that). It’s not really through any fault of their own, but unless people consciously pay attention to the diversity of their reading list, that’s just the way the chips are gonna fall.

To demonstrate this, Nelson shared the numbers from her own reading logs, both before and after she started paying attention to reading diversely.

  • In 2012, Nelson read 92 books — 4 were by “people who were not white,” so 4.3%.
  • In 2013, her percentage was 3.6%.
  • So far in 2014 (after she started paying attention to reading diversely), 15 out of 91 books have been written by people of color, putting her percentage at 16.4%.

So I was curious. I took a look at my Goodreads account and studied the authors from the past couple years. (Note: I only started using Goodreads in 2013, and don’t have a log of my reading prior to that.)

  • In 2013, I read 23 books. 7 were by women authors, putting that percentage at 30% (admittedly, 3 of the 7 were Margaret Atwood). 1 was written by a person of color (Haruki Murakami), so 4.3%.
  • So far in 2014, I’ve read 21 books. 10 were by women (47.6%), and 1 has been by a person of color (Sherman Alexie — 4.7%).

Ouch. I assumed my percentages wouldn’t be great, but interesting to note — even though Nelson reads a LOT more books than me, our percentages are similar. Which goes to prove what she’s saying — if you’re not paying attention, you aren’t reading diversely. My percentage of women writers is pretty damn good. And you know why? A couple years ago, I made the conscious decision to start reading more books by women authors. If I made the same decision regarding ethnic diversity, how much better could I make those percentages?

(I know some readers at this point are asking, why does it matter? Why should I be concerned at all by the ethnicity of a writer? To which I would say — watch Nelson’s video. She more eloquently explains all of this than I ever could. Why do I personally care to make my reading more diverse? Because it’s a big, big world, with a lot of people, and a lot of different experiences. I feel more educated, more aware, if I get even a snippet of that diverse experience.)

I’ve had Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison on my reading list for a while — think I’ll boost them up. Any others you’d recommend? How do you ensure that you’re reading diversely — or do you decide to at all?