2016 Sass ‘n’ Brass Book Challenge

It’d probably be more accurate to call this post Brittaini’s book challenge, because Dayna won’t be told what to do by anyone, not even her best bosom buddy (she’s probably going to also be mad that I used the term bosom buddy). And really, the overall point is less that this is a book challenge that everyone should do and more that taking a studied approach to your reading is a good thing, especially within broad parameters that allow for your whims. I’m a pretty firm believer in the tyranny of choice, and having a list of books that you want to read because you think that the list will diversify or focus your reading isn’t bad, and it’s not prescriptive for everyone. Consider this a choose-your-own-adventure book challenge.

My 23 (24?) year old self from 2012 felt called out earlier this month when Jia Tolentino from Jezebel posted Damn, You’re Not Reading Any Books by White Dudes This Year? That’s So Freakin Brave and Cool. A few years ago I did a Year of Women — and I am VERY TEMPTED* right now to insist that I did it before it was cool — and the year was mostly successful, except for that time that I got 250 pages into A Song of Ice and Fire book seven and Jon made fun of me so I threw it across the room (that was Dayna’s book. Sorry Dayna). Since that year my reading has typically been more tilted toward women, and I notice more when books are stereotypically manish and feel more empowered to stop reading them. Life is long, but it is also short, and there are some things that I just don’t have time for.

Tolentino’s piece is worth reading in full, but this is the heart of it:

On its own, the curve away from reading white male authors is extremely rewarding. And, as with pretty much everything that is rewarding in its own right—good sex, thoughtful cooking, giving your money away, spiritual practice (?), fitness (??), children (????)—the nature of the reward skews inherently private, evident only in its natural effects.

In other words, I get why you’d avoid reading 10:04 or what have you; I don’t understand why it’s ever more productive to say so than just to read something else and (omitting the part about your commitment to social justice) talk about that. Justification for obviously rewarding acts is always unnecessary, and in the case of reading “diverse” writers, the reward can be meaningfully deflated by the announcement of the act itself. The people most excited to say, “Uh, I’ve actually been reading a lot of Nigerian writers lately?” tend to be white people; the space taken up by being interested in one’s own Here’s Why I’m Only Reading X Minority Group project is often counterproductive to the point.
Even though I felt called out, I still wanted a book challenge, so I put one together for myself based on criteria I stole from places like the #BustleReads challenge and threw in a few extras. One of the other problems with book challenges is they often include categories that I’m just not interested in and know I won’t do. I’m not going to read a book to a stranger child, for example, even if that is a good and right and joyful thing.

Without further preamble, here’s the list:

    1. A book written by a person under 25
    2. A book written by a person over 60
    3. A book about non-western history
    4. A graphic novel by a lady
    5. A memoir from Mary Karr’s list
    6. A book written in 2016.
    7. A book written 100+ years ago
    8. A book of essays
    9. An old favorite
    10. A translated book
    11. A book of short stories
    12. Five books from the 2016 Tournament of Books
    13. Something gathering dust on my shelves

I’m planning on blogging these books over the course of the year, maybe doing a recap (of the books) at the end. If you want to follow along, great! Look for the SnB Book Challenge tag. If not, no hard feelings, you do you.

*Clearly I am not good at all at resisting temptation.

Link Roundup: The Canon is Shaped Like a Dick

There’s an essay rolling around in my head that will some day unite these articles. For now, I’ll just post them here:

On Pandering – Claire Vaye Watkins, November 23, 2015, Tin House. 

All parts of this somewhat meandering essay are great and important, but I especially love On Invisibility and this seciton in particular:

It was Toni Morrison who pointed out that Tolstoy was not writing for her, who said she was writing toward black women. It makes you wonder, Who am I writing for? Who am I writing toward?

Myself, I have been writing to impress old white men. Countless decisions I’ve made about what to write and how to write it have been in acquiescence to the opinions of the white male literati. Not only acquiescence but a beseeching, approval seeking, people pleasing.

But whom do I mean when I say white male literati? Sounds like a conspiracy theory, one of my favorite genres of American storytelling. I mean the people and voices real and imagined in the positions of power (or at least influence) in writing and publishing, but mostly I mean the man in my mind. James Baldwin wrote of the “little white man deep inside of all of us” but mine is tall. He’s a white-haired chain smoker from New Mexico, the short story writer called “Cheever’s true heir.

80 Books No Woman Should Read – Rebecca Solnit, Literary Hub, November 18, 2015

One of the best literary decisions I made in the past year is purchasing Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me from Arcadia, a small and beautifully curated bookstore in Spring Green. Much of the essay is tongue-in-cheek, but it relates, I think, to an idea I’ve been mulling on for awhile — how do you find reading that’s good for you? What does it mean to read as a woman when the canon is shaped like a dick (this was a tag for this post and it is perfect and my favorite). Some excerpts:

The list made me think there should be another, with some of the same books, called 80 Books No Woman Should Read, though of course I believe everyone should read anything they want. I just think some books are instructions on why women are dirt or hardly exist at all except as accessories or are inherently evil and empty. Or they’re instructions in the version of masculinity that means being unkind and unaware, that set of values that expands out into violence at home, in war, and by economic means.


There are good and great books on the Esquire list, though even Moby-Dick, which I love, reminds me that a book without women is often said to be about humanity but a book with women in the foreground is a woman’s book. And that list would have you learn about women from James M. Cain and Philip Roth, who just aren’t the experts you should go to, not when the great oeuvres of Doris Lessing and Louise Erdrich and Elena Ferrante exist. I look over at my hero shelf and see Philip Levine, Rainer Maria Rilke, Virginia Woolf, Shunryu Suzuki, Adrienne Rich, Pablo Neruda, Subcomandante Marcos, Eduardo Galeano, Li Young Lee, Gary Snyder, James Baldwin, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez. These books are, if they are instructions at all, instructions in extending our identities out into the world, human and nonhuman, in imagination as a great act of empathy that lifts you out of yourself, not locks you down into your gender

And the obligatory Franzen dig:

Also, I understand that there is a writer named Jonathan Franzen, but I have not read him, except for his recurrent attacks on Jennifer Weiner in interviews.

Homme de Plume: What I Learned Sending My Novel Out Under a Male Name – Catherine Nichols, Jezebel, 8/4/2015

Catherine Nichols sends her novel out under a pseudonym and the responses are more 19th century Currer Bell than you’d think:

I wanted to know more of how the Georges of the world live, so I sent more. Total data: George sent out 50 queries, and had his manuscript requested 17 times. He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book. Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25.

This is also the essay that made me deeply suspicious of any review that refers to writing by a woman as “lyrical.” And the one that made me resolved to never pay money for a book by a living a male author. Library fines are a different story. And maybe I’ll buy your book if I know you. Otherwise, sorry dudes, you’ve had your turn.