In a recent interview I answered, briefly, a question about why it's important to read widely, and I wanted to expand on that a little bit because, well, lots of things boil down to reading widely. The length, the breadth, the depth of your reading: the geometry of the complex shape it forms in your life, as seen from outside time. Why does it take effort to make this shape something other than a brief, depthless line?
Of course, you don't have to read widely. It's not like you're required to consume ethnically produced fiction from each continent in equal quantities for a balanced diet1. It's not like you could be overdosing on the South American (the gout of too much magic realism) while suffering from a severe South Asian deficiency (the scurvy of not enough arranged marriages)… Read whatever you want, is what I'm saying, and go in peace. Some find it possible to stop there.
For the rest of us, who continue to pick at the scab again and again—
To attempt an argument from first principles, the natural urge of the reader2 is surely to explore and discover (other minds, other lives, other worlds), because that's the same impulse that drives people to be readers in the first place. So rather than reading widely being the special case, it seems to me that it should be the norm; all else being equal, each reader will explore as widely as they can before the natural limits of circumstance and mortality constrain them. And since life is short and troubled (and there are too many stories) every mortal3 reader is, eventually and through no fault of their own, parochial.
The problem is that all else is never equal. The world is so arranged that readers are never allowed to discover this limit of exhaustion in and of themselves. Constraints on the personal scale4 hardly even enter into it, being shadowed by the overwhelming fact that literature and its moving parts—the stories, the books, the writers, the publishers—are not neatly, evenly distributed around the world's languages and geographies. Even if you happen to lead a particularly untroubled life with much disposable income and plenty of free time, and you have the best will in the world to read the near and the far, the like and the unlike alike, you can't. Because we don't live in that world; we live in a world where most of the stories needed to make up that neat, even distribution don't exist. There are too many books for anyone to read them all, yes, but that's an irrelevant impossibility; the important point is that there are not enough books5, nowhere near as many books as there should be.
(Why? It is a Mystery. Here is a locked geopolitical sphere, no way in or out, but there is something misshapen lying on the earth, a suspicious arterial spatter of language, disproportionate wealth pooling in rigor mortis. Tread lightly, this world is a crime scene.)
So reading widely as a practice—not for show and not for points, but as a long-term strategic arrangement between you and your bookshelf—is a kind of portal fantasy. It's a door into a another world, a better one. Not the kind that you can build; but a parallel that we can't touch, a world a knight's-move away that splintered away from this one in the apocalyptic centuries of murder and pillage that we refer to with genteel euphemisms like “colonialism”. But it's not about nostalgia for this never-was, either; it's an algiatric strategy to remember and to be remembered, to resist the sly elision that, under cover of euphemisms, quietly becomes excision6. And I'm not just talking about how histories are written: there is something worse still in those swollen absences in your own mind where there should be a history that you should have known but that you never learned, or worse, that you could never learn. The wounds you didn't know you carried. To read widely is to try to learn, using only your sense of touch in the dark, where your scars are.
Today’s unrelated reading recommendation & palate cleanser: “It Was Educational” by J.B. Park in Clarkesworld: “One of the dead is a real human being and he has filed a review of his death. It was fast and I had time to watch as my stomach pumped out blood onto the ground. Glub glub, he had noted, jotting down the onomatopoeia.”
I'm allergic to the well-balanced bookshelf as a peacock tail, that ted-talking, award-friendly strut. ↩
Idealized, of course, but I rather do mean the reader without a capital R nevertheless, in an attempt to flatten no characteristic apart from the reading itself. ↩
Immortal readers are beyond the scope of this argument, and may no doubt eventually read everything. ↩
Time, of course; disposable income (or the tech/savvy for “piracy”); literacy in languages that have a literary tradition and a publishing industry; a literary education of some sort, that sort of thing. By which last I don't mean a schooling but just that even the most didactic of autodidacts must come and drink of their own accord, if only to learn what they like. (Obviously this metaphor is not about drinking from either the Pierian spring nor the Castalian, or any particular named magical spring/quest location. Reading the canons depends on reading widely, not the other way around; reading widely depends on reading-at-all. So maybe just water itself, ubiquitous, precious and polluted.) ↩
In a hideous symmetry, the US+UK publish five times as many titles per year as all South Asia put together, while having one-fifth the population. Maybe one in every thousand Americans is a novelist—some day if that proportion extends across the globe, we'll call that balance. But that's not a day that'll be seen by anybody now alive. ↩
Of course, there are always plenty of people to act and argue in favour of this kind of excision. On the one hand, you want to ignore this contemptible time-wasting bullshit—e.g., the thing with the yellowface-pseudonym guy7 or more recently, the risible rant from Michael Grant on how “there is no YA or middle grade author of any gender, or of any race, who has put more diversity into more books than me”—but on the other hand maybe it's better to have this shit out in the open so you know not to step in it. ↩
The problem with which is not that some asshole can hack a nonwhite editor's sense of poco solidarity (which is just a special case of historically rooted empathy, and not something that comes with harshly policed borders). The problem is Hudson's imperial entitlement and arrogance; by including the poem, Alexie is saying that this is not just a lone rogue poet behaving badly but an arrogance very much ensconced and institutionalized in the mainstream of what is Best, and American. Which seems accurate, and preferable to allowing this sort of pustule to fester unseen and deniable. (One familiar objection to the use of “nonwhite”, as I used it above, that it centres whiteness. But the whole point of “whiteness” is that it is already centred, by definition: it was invented to occupy the centre and deny it to others. Allowing it to fester and necrotize unacknowledged renders the entire ethnographic discourse gangrenous.) ↩