Can a diverse reading list help counter racism, sexism, and homophobia?
(This interview was first published in January 2017 on the Postcards for Peace blog. Though some parts of it might seem dated now, the broader reflections shared by the interviewee continue to be relevant and thought-provoking.)
How can your choice of books play a role in building world peace? Pooja Pillai, a Mumbai-based journalist, has an answer for you. “The wider we read, the easier it is to understand and empathize with other people, other views, other cultures. Xenophobia, racism, casteism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, chauvinism of any kind — one can learn to grow out of these simply by engaging with other stories and other viewpoints,” she says.
Pooja, who works as Principal Correspondent with The Indian Express, and writes primarily about arts and culture, has initiated The 2017 Read Wider Challenge. Anyone can participate by signing up on this Facebook page, and reading regularly for an entire year, by meeting each of the 89 sub-challenges listed there. The task is to read books from diverse genres, written by authors belonging to different regions, and depicting ways of living that one is unaccustomed to. The hope is that a diverse reading list will make one more open to people unlike oneself.
In the interview below, she explains the thought process behind this challenge.
CGM: You mention that the challenge is meant to get people out of their comfort zones and read more diversely. What makes comfort zones undesirable for you? How do you think readers will benefit from reading more diversely?
PP: It was actually the two big global news developments of 2016 — Brexit & Trump’s election — that made me think in terms of reading diversely. The fact is that many liberals (and I identify as one) were completely thrown by these two outcomes. We couldn’t comprehend what had happened, and how such a large number of people couldn’t see what we very clearly could. It showed how insulated we have become, particularly in the age of curated news content where our social media feeds are tailored to reflect our own beliefs back at us. And I realized that this shows a certain aversion to broad-mindedness that also affects how we consume other forms of information — television and movies, books, podcasts, music, art, etc. We end up reading the same kind of books, by the same kind of authors or we watch movies written by the same handful of people and which star the same handful of actors and what that results in is a very narrow view of the world.
No single human being or single group of human beings can know or experience everything and we, as readers or movie goers, cannot therefore rely on a small group of people to widen our experience of life. And the narrower our experience of life, the harder it is for us to imagine all that falls outside of that experience, and where our imagination fails, empathy inevitably fails. We are never challenged to step out of our comfort zones of what we already know and what affirms our ideas of the world, and this is so sad because the world rich with experiences and learning moments. Reading widely gives us opportunities to exercise the empathy that all human beings are capable of, because it exposes us to people and worldviews that are not the same as what we already know but which, nonetheless, are as important to the world as we are. It shows that no matter what language we speak, what religion we follow, there are certain basic human experiences — of love, sorrow, desire — which are truly universal and that, hopefully, will make us accept that humanity truly is one.
CGM: Is this the first time you’ve initiated this kind of challenge? Could you recall a specific instance or realization that made you veer towards this idea of setting up a challenge that could be shared by many others?
PP: Yes, this is the first time I’ve initiated a challenge of this kind, although I have participated in challenges initiated by other people before. The reason I created this challenge is originates my own failure to read diversely in 2016. I maintain a record of the books I read on Goodreads.com, and while I was going through it sometime in December, I realized that I had read the same few authors and genres that I’m comfortable with. Over the last few years, I have become increasingly sensitized to the fact that publishing is dominated by mostly white, male writers. Women, writers of colour, writers in other languages (especially in India) are rarely taken seriously (and there are so many other intersections of non-privilege here). So that, combined with the circumstances described in Answer 1, convinced me to create a challenge that would force me to be more creative and exploratory in my choices. I consider this to be my true education. As I was making the challenge, I realized I was having so much fun figuring out which books to read that I decided that other bookworms should be able to share my joy as well.
CGM: Could you describe the kind of people who’ve signed up for this challenge?
PP: It’s a very intimidating challenge because of the sheer number of books that you’ll end up reading in a single year. Many people have told me that they won’t be participating because they simply don’t have the time and stamina, and I get that. I’ve been there, which is why the main rule for this challenge is to have fun and not stress out. That said, the people who have signed up for the challenge — I would describe them as avid readers who are always up for a challenge, regardless of whether they fail or succeed (basically, my favourite type of readers).
CGM: Your challenge seems to be based on the idea that reading makes people better human beings. Is that an accurate reading? Please example.
PP: Yes, you read that right. I do believe that the more you read, the more your imagination and ability to empathize grow. But there is a caveat: it’s not how many books you read, but how many types of books you read. That is what makes a difference. For example, I can’t read only Indian books in English which are set in cities like Bombay and Delhi, and expect to have much understanding of how lives are lived in Manipur and Kerala and Kashmir.
CGM: How did you come up with such an exhaustive list?
PP: Most of these categories are inspired by the massive pile of books which I have accumulated over the years.
CGM: Could you please share a bit about how you grew to love books so much?
PP: I think it comes from growing up in a house where books were always a significant physical presence, and from having parents who enjoy reading. My parents never said ‘no’ if I wanted to buy books — even if they were Nancy Drew mysteries — and they actually subscribed to a number of magazines for children and teens for my sister and I. I remember reading Tinkle, Champak, Target and Teens Today. They also had us enrolled as members at the local library, and my mom and I would make weekly trips to the library and borrow books, comics and magazines.
CGM: I found it amazing to note that your challenge encourages people to pick up books that espouse a politics that’s different from their own. What made you do this?
PP: I give full credit for this to my husband, Pramit. Like me, he too has watched the narrowing of the liberal worldview with dismay. And over the past year, we’ve had so many discussions and debates over why this is happening, and what could possibly have gone wrong. So when I mentioned that I’m creating a book challenge for 2017, he suggested that I include this as one of the sub-challenges, and make it more of challenge for those of us (which is most of us) who are too stubborn to acknowledge other points of view. He believes that debate is important, but the only way it can be a healthy debate is when we know what the opposite team is talking about. And I completely agree with him.
CGM: I have come across many people who are amazingly well-read but that breadth of knowledge hasn’t translated into an appreciation for diversity. Do you think that the solitary act of reading can also encourage aloofness and breed arrogance?
PP: I’m not sure that reading can encourage aloofness and breed arrogance. I feel that people who look down on those who don’t read are in fact reacting to charges of being too “bookish” or “nerdy”. This begins in childhood, when kids who read are called bookworms, and it harks back to certain old attitudes about how children should be running around and not sitting in a corner and reading. Why shouldn’t they read, if they’re so inclined? This is particularly so, when children are young. And I believe that most readers really acquire the book habit when they are kids, not when they become adults or even as adolescents. Yes, there is a certain amount of snobbishness among readers (chick lit vs “lit” lit, etc.), but I think snobbishness, no matter what you do, is coded into human DNA. I don’t think that readers are automatically better people but yes, I do think that largely, readers are more receptive to ideas and conversations that challenge their own preconceptions.
I think the act of reading, because it is largely solitary, can teach people how to be alone and quiet, without seeking loud distractions. It teaches how to concentrate and how to process complex ideas at a young age. And that really is the key, isn’t it? It is very important that children learn to process complex ideas about love, death, faith, desire, dreams, etc. because that makes them more receptive to complexity as they grow older. In fact, the complete deterioration of public discourse that we see now is because we’ve failed to be the generation that reads, and reads widely.
One thing that I would like to make clear is that I understand that this challenge is not exactly accessible — it assumes that participants would be primarily Indians who have the wherewithal to buy/borrow books in English, and sufficient time in which to read them. That is a deficiency of this challenge, which I hope to make up with other challenges next year.