The Next Chapter: Reading Outside the Boxes

When I was a teen I was a fan of the science fiction novels of Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut. I loved Bradbury’s books Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles. I became a rabid fan of Vonnegut after reading Breakfast of Champions. I loved his sci-fi novels Cat’s Cradle and Sirens of Titans. If anyone asked me who my favorite fictional character was I would say Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s alter ego.

Then I branched out to other science fiction writers. I read Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke and didn’t like it. I don’t think I finished it. There was too much science in the book and science was never my favorite subject in school. I went many years without reading that genre until I decided earlier this year that I wanted to read Dune by Frank Herbert.

There are a couple of reasons why I decided to finally tackle Dune. First of all, the film with Timothee Chaletmet was coming out in theaters in December ( Last I checked, they didn’t move the release date to next year. ) Also, I was moved last year watching Wil Wheaton eloquently talk about Dune on the Great American Read last year. Finally, I am turning 60 in October and if I was ever to get back to reading sci-fi, it had to be now.

To my surprise, I really loved Dune. It starts off when Paul Atreides, his father Duke Leto and Paul’s mom Lady Jessica (Duke Leto’s concubine) have to move to the desert planet of Arrakis. The main export of the planet is “melange” or spice that mined underground. Once I stopped looking up words in the glossary, the novel moved quickly and I was invested in the story. I have other sci-fi books in my library written by Issac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Ursula K. Le Guin on my shelves and I have another genre to read.

As important as reading outside your comfort zone is, I think what’s more important is reading diversely. I always have tried to read other authors besides old, straight, cis-gender men. It is important to read people from other cultures and ethnic groups besides your own. This idea took hold one late night when I was scrolling through Bookstigram, the bookish community on Instagram. There was a #nineauthors challenge when you post a photo of your top 9 authors in a Brady Bunch configuration that was popular then. As I scrolled down by the hashtag that there were a number of people who didn’t pick one woman or person of color to be in their grids. If there were one or two, I would have brushed it off, but there were several that were all white straight men. I was mad. Did anyone ever read James Baldwin or Toni Morrison? Are you insinuating that the best writers are straight white men? I know I shouldn’t post late at night but I posted an old photo of a guy on a soapbox and ranted about reading diversely. I thought the community I loved could do better.

I went back to bed and the next morning I got the biggest response I ever got on Instagram. Some people agreed with me but there was push back. I spent most of the morning with my friend @kschoemeraxe making a case for being diverse readers. While the discussion was heated at times I think everyone was respectful. There were some people who were sticking to their guns no matter what I or Karen had to say. That’s their prerogative. I felt good that I spoke up because if no one speaks out, nothing will change.

When I saw the video of the murder of George Floyd ( I refuse to call it an “incident”; it was a modern-day lynching) I was angry that something like this could happen. I felt like I had questions, so I read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. I truly believe he was the most eloquent person to write and speak about race and racism. I don’t think Baldwin answered my questions but I got a better idea about how systematic racism is in America. I couldn’t change the world but at least I had a better understanding of how it works.

I am lucky that my friend @kalnerwilians is also trying to get people to read more authors of color. She sent me by mail two books I’ve been wanting to read for a while: Americanah by Nigerian author Chimanadana Ngozi Adichie and The Nickle Boys by Colson Whitehead. Then later my friend @hannekehermes from Amsterdam, Netherlands sent me a hard covered edition of Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. I am grateful that I have wonderful friends who believe in reading diversely as much as I do.

I was shocked a couple of years ago when the riot in Charlottesville happened. White Supremacist and Nazis took over the streets and it was frightening to see it live on tv. Worse, we have a president who didn’t denounce them. We can not let hate win. If more people read books by black writers like Zora Neale Hurston or Ernest J Gaines, maybe we all can come together and slowly understand each other.

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