Ten White Guys Who Speak English

You have no doubt seen some of those “challenges” around Facebook now. Which ten album covers most influenced your fashion choices as a teen? (sadly, Harry Chapin) Which ten Bob Dylan songs are your favorite to sing in the shower (obvs, Desolation Row).

The one I was nominated for was simple enough: Your ten favorite books. What the hell, I thought. I love books, talking about books, and making lists. This was a win-win. Naturally I took the opportunity to enjoy the nice autumn air (at my local pub’s garden) and make a list. And while I was making the list, I made a decision: I would not lie.

I am not saying everyone out there is lying about this stuff. But I do feel there’s a tendency for people to lie about these things so as to look more sophisticated and worldly than their actual choices might suggest. The things we like vs. the things we think we should like. I have a friend who gushes over the brilliance of Citizen Caine and 8 12, but he could do every character from beginning to end in Groundhog Day as a one man show.

And so I wrote my list. Each writer on that list have three things in common: they’re all white, they’re all male, and they’re all native English speakers.

Limited though these books may make me look, this list was about my ten favorite books, not the books I wanted people to think were my ten favorite. There was going to be no quota, no even smattering of nationality. Sex did not play a role in my list. This was not about inclusion, it was about my favorite books. Though I have told a thousand lies in my life, I would find this lie to be unforgivable.

That is not to say that I didn’t consider any women or non-native English speakers. The works of Doris Kearns Goodwin, Sarah Vowell, and JK Rowling were shortlisted. As were books of stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Borges, and Julio Cortozar. And novels by Bohumil Hrabal, Josef Škvorecký, and Karel Čapek. But they just didn’t make the cut.

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about the lily white high school (and maybe even college) canon. That is, the books we were asked to read in high school and college. If you are an American who is over 30 years old, there’s a good chance you and I had extraordinarily similar intake in high school. J.D Salinger. William Goldman. Charles Dickens. Herman Hesse. John Knowles. JRR Tolkien. Mark twain. Ernest Hemingway. Arthur Miller. In college writing workshops I was introduced to Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, and Richard Brautigan.

All white male English natives. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not apologizing. I think people should read what they want and I wouldn’t berate someone for reading romance or horror. With that being said, there’s an enormous world of literature out there and the majority of what I read is written by the same sex and the same nationality. It’s like forming an opinion by asking only members of one political party. I’m only getting part of the story. I am an advocate for diversity in literature and writing classrooms. My knowledge of literature and culture have grown hugely since delving into Czech, Japanese, and Latin writers.

While I am tempted to do a dramatic turn around of reading, and for one year only read women or foreign writers, I am not going to do that. But I strike a deal with myself – I’ll alternate for two years. For every white English speaking guy I read I will read a book by a non-native English speaker or a woman.

Maybe in two years’ time I’ll be able to take a new challenge: favorite books by non-English speaking native men. But who knows.

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