If the personal is political a reading list is pretty much a policy platform. After American SF writer KT Bradford challenged XoJane readers to a year of non-white-male reading there was instant rancor across the web. The flames of this American culture war fanned out to Amazon shopping carts and Goodreads lists alike. If that sounds flip, it isn’t. The concentration of buying power in increasingly narrower channels and in a context where the predictions of Susan Hawthorne’s Bibliodiversity becoming increasingly real, where and how we spend our literary attention and dollars is a pressing ethical concern.
Reading is an act of radical, immersive empathy. A litany of studies demonstrate that reading fiction enables one to identify with others (and the Other) more thoroughly and emotively. The parts of the brain activated by reading are those involved with language, emotion, empathy and communication, and testing suggests that consistently reading fiction makes you more receptive to different perspectives, new ideas, and change.
However, there’s a key word generally missing from the criticisms of Bradford’s list: challenge. In a world of free shipping from Book Depository, acting on one’s tastes without challenging them is about as bourgeois as you can get without throwing shoe-shining orphans into the Thames. Not all reading is the same, and some is not as easy as others. Who we identify with and how we do so is more important than the identifying itself. For example, if I wanted to know what it felt like to live through the Angolan civil war and had a choice between reading Ryszard Kapuściński and Sousa Jamba, the gap is stark. The former presents the conflict – and Africa – as something to come to know from darkness, through a glass darkly. That isn’t to cheapen the still-brilliant journalistic work of Kapuściński, but such are the faultlines of literature and perspective. When you want a story, you tell a journalist to go to the source. We need do the same as readers.
The reading list these days is not merely a personal mental shopping list, but a social meme – something we not only apply in our own lives, but something we transmit outwards to signify what it is we value. Autodidacticism is no longer a private protest at what one isn’t being taught, but a site for activating public debates through private action. If you want to learn about Picasso in a way you’re not osmotically taught about Picasso, then read Mary Ann Caws’ biography of Dora Maar. Speaking broadly, the virtue of the challenge could be as skin deep as sitting down and deciding to find a hundred books from perspectives utterly foreign to your own – reading some reviews, writing down what you didn’t know, electing to read a few, finding yourself somewhere you weren’t a fortnight prior. If the joy of picking up a book and getting lost without leaving your seat is one you’ve lost touch with, then this tool is one to pick up and sharpen pronto.
When we read, we read politically, no matter what we think we’re doing. Growing up in Western Australia and burrowing headlong into the Southern Gothic tradition – Flannery, Faulker, Crews – it took me a long time to realize this was generally a neat way of displacing my anxieties and guilt about the way in which Indigenous Australians are treated in Perth. Reading Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet – where maverick, mythic Indigenous figures scamper Puck-like across the lamplit inner lives of his 3D white Lamb-Rose clan – paled sharply against reading Jack Davis’ patient, interrogative excoriations of the disgusting, endless cruelties of the established order. The ethics towards difference implied by the texts demonstrate completely different realities, and one would be far poorer for only reading the former.
As ever, it’s important to keep an eye on the elephant that’s usually dwelling in the room when culture wars erupt – class. The work of Christos Tsiolkas, of course, impels us to query where the Australian Dream has taken us, and who it’s chewing up en route, in ways that you wouldn’t want to toss out with the bathwater. But quibbling on where the lines are drawn sidesteps the key purpose of the exercise. If reading texts that validate your own perspective brings joy, then that joy is one ultimately limited by the avoidance of the other. At the same time, supporting local publishers who take the difficult steps necessary to bring such mind-expanding works into the Australian purview is increasingly important. The efforts of small and academic publishers, like that of UWA Publishing to bring works like Uday Prakash’s remarkable trio of novellas The Walls of Delhi into English translation, or the publication of Lesbia Harford’s collected poems, continue to be inspiring and essential cultural work.
Ultimately, devising yourself a radical reading list is just a programmatized version of the same kind of decision making involved in boycotting Today Tonight or deciding on SBS news over the Channel 7 bulletin, or to scan The Guardian’s website instead of plonking your homepage on news.com.au. At a time when our government is sprinting at a clip to reduce the range of ideas in the public sphere, and when support for disadvantaged groups in society is drying up faster than the climate, reading is a more radical act than ever. If one has the room, space and ease to refuse what’s immediately offered and familiarly appealing, taking the easy way out is a dodge at best.