The Omnivorous Reader

I grew up in small cities in the Midwest, in a pretty typical middle-class home. Both of my parents worked, but somehow we managed to have a full, together-at-the-dining-table dinner most nights (thanks, Mom!). My mother liked to cook, she said—she claimed she read cookbooks the way other people read novels—but I don’t recall all that much variety in our menu. Fried chicken. Hamburgers. Spaghetti. Something she called “campfire stew,” which I loved. Basic, wholesome stuff. No complaints from me. Not many, anyway. I refused to eat liver or Brussels sprouts, and my sister got my share of the acorn squash.

My diet didn’t change much when I went to college. My fraternity had a cook, Mattie, with a repertoire even more limited than my mother’s—mac and cheese, chili, fish sticks. Certainly nothing exotic. The only item I even remember from those years is something we called “Mattie brownies,” massive slabs of baked, chocolatey sweetness. Yum. When I began graduate school, I lived in the grad student dorm. They probably tried to liven up the menu with “international” choices—maybe chow mein or tacos—but if they did I don’t remember, and it’s almost certain that any such items were toned down for the average palate of rural, Midwestern America.

All of which is to say, for the first 22 years of my life, I was not an adventurous eater.

But in January of 1976 that changed when I boarded a plane bound for Seoul, Korea to serve in the Peace Corps. My first taste of Korean food was in San Francisco where our service group gathered for pre-departure briefings. Not everyone in our group liked it, but I did, for reasons I couldn’t then explain. I was just ready for a new experience, I guess, and the unfamiliar food was the first manifestation of that experience. Upon arrival in Seoul, where there was no turning back, and then at our training site down-country, we had to eat Korean food (or Korean versions of Chinese food) or starve, basically, because even in metropolitan Seoul in 1976 there were not many other affordable options. But that was fine with me. Bulgogi, kimchi, and bibimbap were just fine with me. Over the next two years of working in a provincial capital city in Korea’s “rice bowl,” famous for its food, I came to love the cuisine. It’s still my favorite. (If someone opened a Korean restaurant near me, I guarantee I’d be one of their best customers.)

Since then, I’ve been exposed to many different kinds of foods, mostly Asian because I spent most of my legal career working in East Asia but dishes from other parts of the world, too. I love to travel and I love to eat, so it’s a good combination.

But not everyone has such a broad appetite. You don’t like Pad Thai? Or Beef Rendang? Far be it from me to judge your tastes. I still won’t eat liver, although at this point I’ve come to love Brussels sprouts and squash. Taste is a curious thing.

Which brings me to literature. (You knew I was headed there, right?)

If you are a woman and you prefer to read only books by women, that’s okay with me. I believe you might find that you’d also like some work by men if you gave it a read, but I won’t judge. Some men say they don’t read books by women. I find that curious since some of my favorite writers are women, but again I’m not going to judge.

Maybe these prejudices are in reality matters of genre, not gender. My father, who spent his whole career as an automotive parts salesman, liked to read Westerns. Most such books are by men, I think, or at least they were while my father was alive. My mother read some literary fiction by both men and women, but mostly she read romance novels, probably by women. It used to be that war novels were written by and read mostly by men. Thrillers, too, although that has changed, as discussed below. Mysteries have long been written by both men and women, although I have the impression that many of the modern superstars of the genre are women. Although the category is in dispute, publishers market some work as “women’s fiction,” and not surprisingly these titles are mostly by women. (I did a cursory online search for statistics to bolster my impressions and didn’t find anything, so take these assertions for what they’re worth.)

As an aside, publishing industry bias is obviously a factor in the gender/genre puzzle. There has long been a perception that the industry was biased in favor of male writers, so much so that women adopted male or gender-less pseudonyms in order to gain publication and readership. It’s possible that the pendulum has swung the other way at this point, as this recent article suggests: Why Men Pretend to be Women to Sell Thrillers.

The question I am struggling to get to is this: How widely should we read?

The question, of course, is huge. There is the issue of gender. If I read mostly work by men, should I make an effort to read more women? There is genre. If I read mostly literary fiction, should I read more genre work—mysteries, thrillers, young adult? There is also culture, which I’ve not mentioned until now. If I read mostly work by white writers, should I be intentional about reading work by writers of color?

The answer depends, I think, on who you are and why you read in the first place. I don’t blame my father for reading mostly books by men or my mother for reading mostly books by women. They were both busy people who read primarily for escape, and the genres that appealed to them were dominated by writers of one gender. I recently saw an article online by a woman who was upset with her date when he revealed that he read only books by men. Now, I can understand if this woman might choose not to go out with this guy again solely because of his narrow choice of reading material, but I don’t think it makes him a bad person, just not the right guy for her. I’m happy to discover that people read anything at all, frankly, given the studies that show reading on the decline. Books are like food (you knew I was going to circle back eventually, right?) and taste is personal. Not everyone likes kimchi, although I think it’s awesome. You only read work by writers who are like you? Can’t say I blame you, even though you’re missing out on some pretty great writing.

I read like I eat—whatever is handy. Nonfiction, novels, short stories. The fiction I read is balanced between the genders, although not with great intentionality. (If I realize that the last couple of books I’ve read are by men I might choose a book by a woman next and vice versa, but I don’t give it much more thought than that.) I also try to make sure I’m reading writers of color, although I have had to make more of an effort there. Because of my interest in Asia, I do seem to read a fair number of Asian and Asian American writers, but I could do better when it comes to African American and Hispanic writers. Most of my non-fiction reading is dictated by my book club’s choices, but we (an even mix of men and women) do try to balance genders and read some books by writers of color. Most of the fiction I read is literary, but I will occasionally read a mystery or thriller if the writing is good. I’ve read a few young adult books in recent years, too, because good writing shows up everywhere. (Having said that the only Westerns I’m likely to read will be by the likes of Cormac McCarthy, and I don’t foresee any romance novels in my future. Nor will I be reading Christian fiction, Zombie/Werewolf fiction, etc. Just not my thing.)

As a writer, my reading is about learning, not escape. I’m not only hoping to improve my craft through exposure to successful work, I’m hoping to open my mind to ideas and experiences in the world. That means reading more than just writers who look like me or come from my background. Still, it’s a question of taste. I’m omnivorous, but I understand those who are not.

For more thoughts on the subject, I recommend: 12 Reasons Reading Widely is Important.





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