Letters from 2017

I thought about making this, my last (and rather overdue) entry of 2017, an overview of the year that was. It was an exhausting, exasperating year, and it probably deserves some kind of summary, but at the same time, I find myself unwilling to make that summary right now. It's as though 2017 demanded so much of my attention, so much of my spiritual energy, that I resent its demanding any more of me. Dammit, I'm gonna write about what I want to write about, and no punk year's gonna stop me. And I want to write about books.

In late 2016, feeling perhaps a bit rattled by certain election results, I couldn't help but notice that the majority of the books I'd read were the work of white men. In and of itself, that's not really a problem, as many of the writers I love best are white guys, but I saw a potential trap in my reading habits: that it would be so easy to read nothing but white guys. Their interests are often my interests, after all, and they're published in enormous profusion. If I wanted to, I could completely ignore the writing of anyone but white guys and plow through a bunch of really excellent books in the process.

But in the age of Trump, ignoring the voices of those with less privilege struck me as not merely unwise but actively dangerous. If I'm going to call myself a supporter of the democratic ideal, I'd damn well better be ready to hear from all corners of the democracy. A few years back I heard some folks discussing a year of reading nothing but non-whiteguy books, but that was further than I wanted to go; as a writer of whiteguy books myself, I wouldn't want my writing to be excluded from the vast tapestry of American letters. I just want all the other threads to be woven into it as well. Thus, I set up a reading project for myself in 2017: that at least half the books I finished during the year would be the creations of people who were not white men.

How'd it go? Pretty damned well, honestly. As of this morning, having polished off Nnedi Okorafor's chaotically beautiful and fascinating first-contact novel Lagoon, I've completed 78 books for the year, and 44 of them were non-whiteguy works. (In some cases, the books were anthologies or collaborations, such as graphic novels, where at least one co-creator was a white male.) A lot of them were comfort reads, because let's face it, this year demanded some self-care, which is why I spent much of the spring summer re-reading favorites like Julian May's Pliocene Exile and Galactic Milieu series. I also went back to the original three books of Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle, and I taught my eighth-grade classes what may be my very favorite of her novels, Very Far Away from Anywhere Else.

Similarly, I've often turned to comics for comfort, and this year I enjoyed a number of collections and graphic novels written and/or drawn by women: the hilarious superhero-culture scholarship of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, the heroic coming-of-age adventure of Ms. Marvel, the sunny grrl-power science nerdery of The Unstoppable Wasp, the continuing but surprising space romance of Saga, and the SF prison rebellion story that may be the purest distillation of anti-Trump power fantasy, Bitch Planet. I know I feel better for having read them.

In other cases I opted to read new books by familiar authors. I jumped back on the Colson Whitehead train with his gripping zombie novel Zone One, and went cheerfully into the Dark Age fantasy of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant. More poignantly, I finally finished the late Kage Baker's novels of The Company, which I began two decades ago with the beautiful and heart-wrenching In the Garden of Iden. Her publishers have done such a crappy job of letting the public know the sequence of those books that for many years I didn't realize I had read one out of order, and it took considerable time and research to piece the sequence back together so that I could finish it.

And yes, I did read some stuff from friends and acquaintances, too. Like I'd fail to pick up Abby Howard's first Earth Before Us book, Dinosaur Empire, or ignore Clockwork Boys, the first volume in Ursula Vernon's new fantasy series (written under the pseudonym T. Kingfisher). Also, though they're white guys, and I really only know them through Twitter, Mike Carey and Peter Gross created a truly astonishing fantasy metanarrative in their comics series The Unwritten.

The main delights of the year, however, came from discovery. Given the incentive to seek out new perspectives, I willingly picked up books by writers I didn't already know, and many were absolutely terrific. I feel lucky to have discovered N.K. Jemisin (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms), Helene Wecker (The Golem and the Jinni), Nancy Farmer (The House of the Scorpion), Julie Schumacher (Dear Committee Members), and in particular Nnedi Okorafor (the abovementioned Lagoon, plus the novellas Binti and Binti: Home.) Having missed Susan Cooper's work during both my own childhood and my kids' childhoods, I finally got around to reading The Dark Is Rising, and after keeping it on my to-be-read list for literally decades, I at long last cracked open and blazed right through Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was pretty much everything I could have hoped for.

If you're curious, my favorite whiteguy books of the year were probably the first one I finished, David Foster Wallace's essay collection Both Flesh and Not, and the longest one I finished, James McPherson's massive one-volume history of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom. I also re-read C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia--like I said, this year required some comfort reading--and finished Bill Willingham & Mark Buckingham's comics series Fables. I should also mention Dan Chaon's tremendously unsettling psychological thriller Ill Will. So yeah, even if for once white guys were not the primary beneficiaries of my attention, they still got plenty of love.

All in all, then, I'm glad I made this effort. Will I do it again in 2018? An interesting question. See, the whole idea of affirmative action is to create opportunity for members of populations that have been denied it in the past. If they capitalize on that opportunity to the benefit of everyone, the wisdom of including those populations should become apparent to all. I've given (and will continue to give) whiteguy books plenty of attention. But having given more attention to the non-whiteguy world over the last year, I feel pretty confident that the one who has reaped most of the benefits is yours truly.

And with that, it's off to do battle with 2018. E pluribus unum, everybody. I've got your back. Let's do this together.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on December 31, 2017 9:13 AM.

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