There’s a bookstore right across from the Philadelphia Public Library and next to HipCityVeg that sells used books for unbelievably cheap prices (like $5 the entire collection of the Harry Potter saga). It’s really the prototype of the old-fashioned bookstore with the smell of used books emanating from the stacks of novels on the ground and the swamped bookshelves. The atmosphere made me think of all the readings I have to do for classes (like 100 pages of so and so research article on cognitive behavior) and made me question how I could possibly think of having time to add another book to my, already over loaded, list of readings.
There is an assumption that reading is an intellectual effort that requires concentration and time: two things we don’t often have after doing our required homework. When you buy a book, you might as well spend your money and time on classics, or books that will make you look or sound smart in class or any other social gathering. It makes you feel like this obnoxious book nerd who constantly claims how well he knows the etymological meaning of every single words of the English language. However, the books you choose to read actually define the view you build of others and especially the one of foreigners.
I googled “books to read” a few days ago because I was curious to know what would show up. I got the “100 books to read” list which only featured books from Western countries and all were primarily classics. Authors like Dostoevsky, Stendhal, Mark Twain, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dante and so on showed up with the title of their most notorious pieces. For the next five websites I scrolled through, the same names reappeared in different orders. The only non-Western book was the collection of Arabian short stories “1001 Nights,” commonly referred to as “Arabian Nights”.
It’s ironic that the main classics that are mostly taught in school revolve around issues of social inequality and the suffering of the human race— all of which are discussed by the hegemonic and privileged northern culture. In no circumstance do you find in the list a writer from Nigeria or Cameroon. The worst part is that I didn’t specifically ask for Western classics in my research, yet it is all that was given to me. There exists a kind of hypocrisy and self-legitimizing of “knowledge” which ultimately questions who has a voice in today’s world and who is represented or recognized.
I am not rebuking the greatness or innovative nature of those works, nor am I trying to make all occidentals feel guilty. The point I am trying to make is that a lambda 2015 google search for books should provide a more global perspective of “books we have to have read before we die”.
In this list we also see that there is, assumed importance we give to classics, as the ultimate reading for knowledge, when really contemporary authors might be more accurate and impactful on today’s issues of inequality and socio-economic shifts.
I recently watched a Ted Talk by Chimamanda Adichie discussing “the danger of a single story” and how the classics of the West perpetuate stereotypes that we have of the third world. Because, let’s face it— until you have set foot in South Sudan or Nigeria, the idea you have of these countries is ultimately that they are countries with problems, politically unstable with a population that needs our help to become as developed as we are. This might not be explicitly mentioned, but the truth is that we have grown within an educational environment by reading classics, which enhances the fact that people from the third world have to be pitied because of us, “the bad white people from the west”.
Classics offer a very Manichean or binary way of thinking of the world, and we tend to forget that even if the themes can often be universally applied to today’s context, it is in fact not the same time period nor context.
From personal experience, a book that I found truly compelling was the Bildungsroman by Tsitsi Dangarembga “Nervous Conditions,” which explores the coming of age and emancipation of a young girl, Tambu, and her entrance into womanhood ruled by a patriarchal society. This novel depicts the imbrication between the issue of race and gender. Although it might seem as a very feminist novel at first, I think that if we put aside the fact that the protagonist is a girl, it objectively captures themes of hegemony and injustice. It shows the unhealthy consequences of stereotypes and preconceived ideas on individuals who suffer from them.
Another piece I enjoyed reading was Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies,” a collection of short stories depicting the variety of cultural clashes between the American and Indian customs of living—
how stereotypes have the power to make a person reject his or her own culture merely based on public opinion because it is seen as more advantageous, less decriminalizing or what not. It really touches on the point that whether we want it or not. Stereotypes remain ingrained in our culture as a way to identify or have a landmark of who people are before getting to know them and this forges people’s identities.
Basically, I think it is especially important since we do not realize that discrepancy, as college students, but most people do not pursue higher education or stop any kind of literature courses after high school and thus they are left with the overall idea that Shakespeare is the center of knowledge and understanding human nature, when really it is not the case. It is important that we learn to be more open to the books we read and keep in mind that books offer simply a small contribution to our understanding of an issue as a whole.