In a recent post, my esteemed Island Books colleague James Crossley confessed to a disproportionate number of male authors in his home library. He concluded with “You (which is to say, I) have to actively redress it by seeking to add women’s voices to the chorus.” Admirable goal? Yes. Sustainable goal? I doubt it. While James may add a few female authors here and there, his reading taste is already long established.
I pondered James’s post over the last week, while I cooked up a piece for the Island Books blog about Melanie Benjamin’s latest work of historical fiction, The Aviator’s Wife, and my penchant for similar “wife” novels. It isn’t just that I like books by women. I have a tendency to read books about women. (Maria Semple, you were talking to me when you recommended Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk in a recent NWBL interview, prefacing it by saying “I’m a chick and I like novels about marriages and families.”)
While it’s true that some of my favorite books are by men, like A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, The Dead Zone by Stephen King, The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson, and anything by William Shakespeare, it’s clear that I’m far more selective when it comes to male authors. I don’t own any books by male authors that I haven’t read because I simply wouldn’t have given them as much benefit of the doubt. My brain just doesn’t gravitate in that direction.
In contrast, my shelves are full of books by female authors that I haven’t yet gotten around to reading. I collect novels that sound appealing when I read the back cover, or female authors I’ve been meaning to read for ages. I’m simply more ambitious about tackling women’s writing.
If I always read what I think I should be reading, I’d gravitate more towards authors like Wallace Stegner, Walter Isaacson and Bill Bryson. It’s not to be. I’m too busy prioritizing Curtis Sittenfeld, Tana French and Gillian Flynn.
Guilty of the same accumulation tendency as James and most other book industry professionals, I fill my house with stacks on stacks of books. When I did a brief assessment, what stood out to me was not just who the authors were, but that I seem to be reading the same premises over and over again. Many of my books are coming-of-age stories, thrillers or portraits of marriages. While it’s cliché that men like facts and women like feelings, that cliché exists for a reason. Women readers tend to read women writers, and women writers tend to write about female characters. Not always, but frequently. And female characters generally think and feel things more while male characters usually just do stuff. I’m already anticipating James’ rebuttal to this!
If I’m generalizing too much here, it’s because I’m seeking to understand the obvious prejudice in my book collection. What it boils down to is that we like what we like, and often what we like is to relate to our characters. Much like the way we gravitate towards friends with things in common, we can empathize better with characters that reflect at least a portion of our own identity. The connection requires less effort. I’m not judging, because I believe we should read what we enjoy and we’ll be happier and more prolific readers if we allow our tastes to guide us.
I’m not saying it wouldn’t hurt to step outside of our comfort zones from time to time, but it may be that there are periods in our lives when this other kind of low-effort reading is the only way to go. I have five-month-old twins at home and trying to read the way I used to—and to stay awake while doing it—is one of the biggest challenges. With limited time, why not read what naturally calls out to us?
Miriam Landis is a web monkey for Island Books on Mercer Island, WA, where she also writes for the store’s journal, Message in a Bottle. She joined the publishing industry in 2004 with an internship at Simon & Schuster and worked as an assistant editor at Hyperion and a site merchandiser on the Amazon books team. A former professional ballerina, she’s the author of two novels about ballet, Girl in Motion, and the sequel, Breaking Pointe and the mother of twins Stephen Marc and Lynne Dena, born in September.