Reading women

Around the start of last year I was performing my annual “Stroking of the books” ritual, where I saunter around my living room admiring my collection and my tremendously good taste in literature. I paused to stroke the largely-unread collection of Dickens’ Penguin Clothbound Classics, I gritted my teeth at the irritatingly mis-matched, incomplete and incomprehensible set of Prousts, I briefly fondled my expansive collection of BFI monographs on serious, important films such as The Big Lebowski, and I stopped to feel the weight of my oversized books on film poster history and the Sega MegaDrive. I made my annual resolution to re-read books more often, and then promptly forgot all the books on my shelves in favour of reading something new.

Something didn’t sit right this time though, because I was paying closer attention to who I had read, rather than what, and the overwhelming majority — maybe 80% or so — of the authors on my shelves were men. No amount of retweeting pro-feminist articles could get me out of this: I was part of the problem.

It’s easily done, to settle into a rhythm of reading what’s similar to what you’ve read before, particularly when you’re mostly buying online and all of your recommendations are coming from the algorithms, the lists of books that “customers who bought this also bought these”. You’re buying a science-fiction novel by this straight, white man? Then you’ll LOVE these other science-fiction novels by straight, white men!

I resolved to try harder, and to consciously seek out women writers instead of relying on the general public’s boringly predictable behavioural patterns. There’s literally nothing that the general public does that I want to emulate other than basic functions like breathing and sleeping, so why would I take book recommendations from them?

Instead of just mindlessly moving on to the next book on my wishlist, I paid closer attention to recommendations coming from websites, women on Twitter and Tumblr. I went back into bookshops and let myself browse. Recommendations from friends helped. Once I spotted a book on Breakfast at Tiffany’s on someone’s shelf when they were doing a video review of a film, and that ended up bought, read and enjoyed.

Thanks to this effort, I read some fantastic stuff last year. The gory history of London burial in Catharine Arnold’s Necropolis. The dense, medieval drama of Nicola Griffith’s Hild. The spooky Belgian stylings of Helen Grant’s Silent Saturday. The fairytale saga of Leslye Walton’s The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. The historical Amsterdam family drama of Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist.

The list goes on: Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, Catherynne M. Valente’s short story collection The Bread We Eat in Dreams, Naomi Novik’s whole Temeraire series that sees the Napoleonic Wars reimagined in a world that includes dragons. I took in some horror with Lauren Beukes The Shining Girls and saw things from an autistic perspective with Sabina Berman’s Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World. That’s not to mention Tove Jansson, Cherie Priest and Sofia Samatar.

It was a successful endeavour, I think. Not only did I read some great books, but I also got some really nice hardbacks out of it. Seriously, this hardback edition of The Night Circus? It has black-edged pages for crying out loud. Black-edged pages.

Once you get into the mindset of avoiding homogeneity, it’s easy to get a more varied diet into your life. Algorithms aren’t that smart; I don’t care what other people bought that was similar. Tell me what other customers didn’t buy. That’s interesting.