Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Dead White Males

For some reason, a few nights ago I stared at my bookshelves and asked myself if the number of books I own from each author would reveal which authors I liked best. I chose to look at authors with more than three books on my shelves, and came up with this list:


  1. Italo Calvino
  2. Tom Clancy
  3. J.M. Coetzee
  4. Roald Dahl
  5. Charles Dickens
  6. William Faulkner
  7. David Guterson
  8. Ernest Hemingway
  9. Jack Kerouac
  10. Halldor Laxness
  11. Mark Twain


  1. Billy Collins
  2. Gary Snyder
  3. William Stafford

There are some surprising names here. Tom Clancy and Haldor Laxness? I grew up reading Clancy's Jack Ryan novels, but I wouldn’t call him a favorite. And I recently discovered Laxness, who is hit or miss with me; a great writer, but not someone who would spring to my mind immediately. I’ve only recently bought his books, and I’m not sure he has staying power at the top of the list. And Hemingway is a source of conflict with my friends – I prefer a richer narrative style (Faulkner and Dickens, for example) to Hemingway’s minimalism.

The range of authors is curious for other reasons. There’s a few classic writers (Faulkner and Dickens again) a few non-Americans (Calvino, Coetzee, Laxness), and a British children's book writer (Dahl), but overall, and especially with poetry, the list is comprised of contemporary American writers. Eight of these writers are dead. Every one is, or was, a white male. There’s not one woman represented.

Aside form that, what else is missing? To begin with, I didn’t count authors whose collected work I own in one volume. That would add Edgar Allan Poe, Jorge Luis Borges, Eudora Welty, many short story writers, and more. And I didn’t count non-fiction works by fiction writers and poets, which would add several more names. The random quantity I chose (three) precludes some of my favorite books and writers (John Banville, Borges, Leonard Cohen, Edward Abbey, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx) who don’t yet represent a large portion of my library. It also precludes those writers who haven’t written three books yet, or who have only written two that I own or like. Besides, I try to stick to a rule to only read an author once in a year or so, in order to avoid saturating myself on one writer at the expense of others; some authors I just haven’t been reading for that long.

In the end, the list is interesting and reveals directions I can go in my reading this year: more women writers, more books by favorite authors, more foreign writers, and more work in translation. I may have to be more adventurous – but then again, the sum total of the above author’s books in my library only totals about 55 books. That’s around 10% of the books I own, and the rest are more inclusive of the missing categories. After all, the last two books I read were written by Germans and translated into English, and my notebook’s reading list contains the names of a homosexual African-American poet, a dead French experimental novelist, a female religious historian, an Iranian novelist, and an Italian critic. Life’s too short to analyze much. Just read, and analyze that.

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