Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Slippery Slope of Diversity Tracking

One of my main reading goals this year is to read 40% diverse authors. Everyone has to set their own criteria for what constitutes "diverse reading." It could be the author's ethnicity, the plot of a book, where it was published and whether it's translated, or countless other bits and pieces. Personally, I've decided to define diversity as:
  • Non-white authors (if this is decipherable)
  • International authors
  • Books in translation
  • Religious affiliation or sexual orientation different from my own
Diverse subject matter within a novel's plot is a popular criteria for many readers, but because I tend to read across genres, mediums, and genders, I've decided this facet isn't as big a challenge for me as the bulleted list up above. 

All this was well and good, and I felt at peace with my bulleted list until I started researching some of the authors on my ereader. I thought I'd take a quick spin through my unread ebooks over lunch to see which diverse titles I might consider picking up next, and right off the bat I found a problem. The author I chose to research had a last name that sounded "international," so that's what set me to Googling. Pictures indicated that the author has olive skin, but as I started reading biographies of this author, there was absolutely no indication of her background, heritage, or ethnicity. 

...crickets...

This led to the question on Twitter...


"If you're tracking diversity in reading, how do you actually know if the person is of a racial or ethnic background you consider diverse?" 

I got some answers like "I Google them!" or "I go by last name." But if Google comes up dry, is evidence of a non-white skin color or an international-sounding last name enough to deem that author diverse? In itself, it seems that using qualifiers like skin color and last name as a deciding factor promotes the same stereotypes we're trying to get around by reading diversely. 

Maybe I'm splitting hairs here, but it left with me a decidedly icky feeling in the pit of my stomach. 

Ultimately, I know that every reader has to decide for him or herself what diversity means or how they'll outline it in order to keep track of their reading goals. Many of these boundaries are arbitrary as I'm finding out as I do more research. However, arbitrary as they can be sometimes, if you want to definitively keep track, some lines are necessary.

In the course of the Twitter discussion that spun off of my initial question, Beth Fish Reads said...


"Diverse for me" is a key item. With the arbitrary lines in place but with good intentions to read beyond our own experience, all we can do is define diversity in relation to ourselves. 

For a real life example, when I was counting up my diversity stats for 2014 (I ended at 29% diverse reading), I included G. Willow Wilson as a diverse author. Many of you probably already know, but she's the writer behind one of the most buzzed-about comics of the year, Ms. Marvel


G. Willow Wilson is a white American woman who is also Muslim. According to this article, she promised God, at the age of 18 and during a bout with illness, that she would convert. After graduating from college she moved to Egypt and was a contributor to Atlantic Monthly and other respected publications. She also has a memoir, The Butterfly Mosque: A Young American Woman's Journey to Love and Islam, that I can't wait to read. While I consider her diverse according to my criteria, others' criteria which differs from my own might disagree. And that's fine! 

What I'm learning, even in these very early days of 2015, with a goal to read at least 40% diverse authors, is that each book and each author is special. I think what we're all trying to do by reading diversely is find the specialness--the nuggets of inspiration or insight that come from experiencing something beyond ourselves.  How we find the wisdom or insight is up to each of us, and it's not easy. It shouldn't be. It takes a little digging and it definitely takes some thought, and so far I'm grateful not only for the books read and authors found, but for the exercise of thinking through these issues because they're that important. 

I'll research every author. Not just the ones with non-white skin or cool last names. There's so much more than that to discover. Our definitions of diversity will ultimately prove as diverse as the authors we choose to read.  

A special thank you to Aarti from BookLust and Didi from Brown Girl Reading for having very open, honest conversations with me on this topic over the course of the week. Sometimes they disagreed with me, other times they made me feel more comfortable with my own guidelines, and they always made me think! Cheers to more honest conversations. 




52 comments:

  1. I love this post. LOVE! Such fantastic points. You just can't go wrong with "diverse to me."

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    1. Thanks, Monika! It's such a personal choice and dependent upon our individual perspectives. I want to push myself as this has been an interest of mine for a long time, but I want to turn it up in 2015.

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  2. Wonderful post, very thought-provoking. "Diverse to me" is a great approach and I love what you wrote about appreciating what makes each author and each book special. One of biggest joys of reading for me if that it has the power to connect us to such a wide variety of lives and experiences, to enrich our understanding and appreciation of diversity.

    "The Butterfly Mosque" looks really like a great read. (I'm currently on a book-buying ban but luckily my local library service has a copy.) As a non-religious person, reading books by authors of any religious affiliation is "diverse to me", and something I am going to aim to explore more this year.

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    1. Thanks, Laura! Some of the best books I read in 2014 (nearly half I think of my final list of faves), were books that removed me and confronted me with some experience that was not my own. That's definitely a big motivator for 2015 to continue to read diversely.

      I hope you enjoy The Butterfly Mosque when you get to it!

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  3. The Butterfly Mosque is good. I had this same issue. Kylie Chan writes books set in Hong Kong. That seems straightforward until you look at her author picture. She is a white Australian who married a man from Hong Kong and now lives there. I added "Has lived in the area that they are writing about". She obviously has a more realistic take on the area than a writer who has only researched it.
    I have Ms Marvel from the library. I hadn't made the connection with the author of The Butterfly Mosque.

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    1. Oh good! I'm glad to know you liked The Butterfly Mosque. And the situation you mention is why it's so important to look at these things on an individual basis. It's worth it to me to do the extra bit of research because with that can come an extra layer of understanding. I hope you enjoy Ms. Marvel!

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  4. You're right that reading diversely isn't always as simple as it appears. Every year, I run across an author or two who I can't decide whether they "count" as diverse. Even when I know an author's background, it's not always clear. There are authors who were born in a different country but lived in the U.S. since they were infants. Is that international? (For me, it depends, and I decide on a case-by-case basis.) And when I read as many books from the UK as I do from the US, can I legitimately count the UK as international? (I don't.) Mostly, I go with my gut and don't fret about it too much. I'm interested in overall trends in my reading and one or two books that I don't define "correctly" won't make a big difference.

    And then there are areas of diversity that we don't always think about. I'm not paying attention in my own tracking to diversity of religious and sexual orientation, although I see the value in doing that. But I am thinking more lately about when authors lived because I appreciate the perspective that I get from hearing voices from the past. (And given what literature from the past has been preserved, that's going to skew my reading a little more white, although I do seek out non-white and international authors from the past.)

    I saw someone say recently that she (or he) was trying to make sure that every other book she read was from someone who didn't share her background. I kind of like that as a simple way of thinking about it.

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    1. Thanks for this thoughtful comment, Teresa! We have to be comfortable with our own choices in reading diversely, and the case-by-case consideration will be very important for me this year. I also don't consider UK authors "international" because they're so readily available to me. I want to reach a bit more.

      You're right that it won't affect overall trends to "miss" an author here or there or miscategorize them according to our own definitions. No blog police will break the door down, and I'm always interested in seeing those yearly trends. It changes for me every year without fail.

      I do like the every other book approach. It eases the process a bit.

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  5. "I think what we're all trying to do by reading diversely is find the specialness--the nuggets of inspiration or insight that come from experiencing something beyond ourselves. How we find the wisdom or insight is up to each of us, and it's not easy. It shouldn't be."

    This is so good and how I've started to about it. Though I've definitely wondered if I've missed someone or counted incorrectly, my tracking spreadsheet is for me. The reading police aren't coming to check whether an author is in the correct category. I didn't set a specific diversity percentage because I want the tracking to serve as more a reminder than anything, so I think that makes it easier not to feel worried about getting it "right".

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    1. Thank you! Definitely it needs to be a reminder. If I'm not reminded it's too easy to just forget about it. Which I have done in the past from time to time. Eeek!

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  6. I've been trying to read more diversely as well, and although I don't do much tracking (I don't think I read enough to make it necessary - I don't tend to lose count), I have some criteria, for authors and content. "Author" criteria include: gender diversity, "new-to-me" nationalities/cultural backgrounds, sexual orientation... "Content" criteria include: increasing the variety of genres (e.g. to include more sci-fi, graphic novels, non-fiction), novels set in different cultural backgrounds to Europe/North America/Ibero-America (important because I read a lot of Latin American fiction), novels whose characters have a different sexual orientation/cultural background/etc. to myself. I agree it's sometimes difficult to find out the background of a "diverse" author, but I also don't want to turn reading diversely into a huge obligation-thing where I start feeling guilty if I don't do well enough. I try to be aware of it and that's that.

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    1. It sounds like you have a good outline for yourself, Bettina! I try to consider this positive pressure I've put on myself because I've ditched the negative external pressure as I perceive it (namely, accepting books for review, etc.). I want my reading to be a reflection of who I am and how I'm trending in any given year, but I do need a mental reminder in this area. It's too easy to read what we're sold and not diversify. Sadly.

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  7. Even more than nationality or race, most of the time there's no way to know a person's religion or sexual orientation unless they have made it public in some ways, and many people don't. That was always the hard part for me. In the end, I went the other route, and base diversity on the contents of the book. (Well, not completely, but like you, I have a complicated personal definition of diversity.)

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    1. Complicated personal definitions seems to be a theme! But I think that's fine...we're all complicated individuals. :)

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  8. Oh! I meant to add - thank you for bringing The Butterfly Mosque to my attention. That sounds wonderful!

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    1. I hope you like it! I hope I do, too! lol

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  9. I, like everyone else :), LOVE this post. That icky feeling you describe is probably why I'm one of the few bloggers that opts not to track diversity in my reading. I feel like I read widely enough, across genres and enough books outside of my comfort zone, and enough books in translation that having to Google the author's ethnicity/orientation/etc where it's not obvious makes me feel weird. Admittedly as a middle class, white, straight, cis-woman -- that could be privilege talking. Your post has me thinking. :)

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    1. Yeah, and that's kinda what I decided for myself. When I don't pay attention I read white authors. Probably because of marketing, mostly, and the books that are picked up for review in papers and "big publications." We all know there's a problem or lack of diversity there, so I need more of an internal list and push to make it happen. And it's been SO worthwhile! I loved my reading (when I wasn't slumpy) in 2014, and some of the best books I read fell within my diversity guidelines. I need more of that goodness in 2015.

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  10. I hate there's no edit button on the posts. :D All that being said I DO track female v. male authors, probably because it's so easy.

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    1. Ha! Me too, re: editing comments. Male/female is super easy. I moved away, almost unintentionally, from reading mostly male authors to mostly female authors a few years ago. Maybe that was a response to grad school and having read so many white guys.

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  11. Great post! I don't consciously track "diversity" in my reading. I read a lot of translated fiction and that automatically gives me some diversity, but I don't define diversity by the author's origin, sex, race, etc. If a book takes me to a place I've never been or looks at a place I've been in a way I've never seen it, I feel it's diversity.

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    1. Translated fiction is one of the areas where I read the least. I don't hear as much about them, they're generally harder to lay my hands on where I live, but I'll definitely be looking into them more in 2015. Thank goodness for the library and interlibrary loan!

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  12. I think this is part of why I don't go out of my way to read diversely - you can't even tell an author's gender by their name these days. I do like to read about other cultures and about people who are different from me so I think I do an okay job with reading diversely.

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    1. I need more of a push than that, personally. I find that when I don't give diversity its due attention, I end up reading mostly white authors. I think that's largely due to the publishing machine and the types of books that get picked up for review in mainstream publications, and the books that have the most marketing dollars behind them.

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  13. Andi, this post is fantastic! I do think that tracking diversity in one's reading almost has to come with personal definitions. For example, I could never use your criteria because that last one would have me considering most authors diverse. (I haven't run across many bisexual atheist authors, though that is the kind of information is generally even harder to find than whether an author is a person of color.) And if I did that, I would be missing the point for me, which is reading beyond my privilege (if that makes sense). Yep, love this post!

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    1. Thanks, Debi! This is definitely one of those "you do you" areas where we have to outline what works for us and works in conjunction with our backgrounds and interests. I'm a white American Christian woman from the south. There are a LOT of people writing who are not like me, and I love that. I was iffy about including the last point, but the G. Willow Wilson example went along with it so nicely. Even though we have much in common, we have many things that are not in common. It seems so out of the norm (for me!) that a blonde from Cali would convert to Islam. Maybe it's not as unusual as I think, but no one is talking about it, that's for sure. hehe

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  14. Great post. Tracking diversity in reading is important to me considering that the majority of the publishing industry right now is white. I want to make sure that I'm giving voices of diversity a spot in my little corner of the reading world to show the publishing industry that these voices matter.

    But you do have to define it for yourself. For me, it's writers who are culturally and racially different from me. So a white, European background writer isn't considered diverse to me. Right now, I'm not tracking religion or sexual orientation but is something I do still consider in my reading.

    And I always remind people that going by name isn't a good thing. My husband has the most delightfully Scottish name even though he is Jamaican and has no ties to Scotland whatsoever. People come by the names they have now in many ways that have nothing to do with where they are from or what they look like. Hey, even this white Dutch girl is walking around with an Irish-Scottish name!

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    1. Thanks, Shan! I agree wholeheartedly with you re: the publishing industry selling white authors. It always feels a little lonely to support a cause like this, but I think (hope) there are more of us supporting diverse voices than it may seem sometimes. The fact that we're all having this discussion is heartening.

      Great point re: name. I've known many people who fell into this kind of situation. I'll always try to take that step to find out what I can, though sometimes the information is limited. Case-by-case it is!

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  15. Great post!

    For me, one of the points of reading diversely is to support authors who face barriers because the publishing world believes the reading population won't want to read a book by someone who writes about some diversity topic or looks a particular way. So, I'm fine with asserting, "Yes, I will read that," and choosing my diversity books by author photo and book topic.

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    1. Thanks, Joy! I agree that it's important to support authors who face barriers. One of their biggest barriers may be getting their name out there in the face of publishing trends nowadays.

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  16. What a thought-provoking post! Yes, we all need to define diversity for ourselves. I include race,cultural background, topic, and sexual orientation. It's all about getting out of our comfort zones.

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    1. Thanks, Vasilly! Getting out of my reading comfort zone is the best. Those are typically the books I love most.

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  17. "Religion different from my own" = pretty much everything I read. Which is why we need to define diversity in our own way. My plan is to track for a few months, then see if I need to boost my numbers by being more aware. I'm not sure I have it in me to start researching every author.

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    1. And that seems like a good approach. Every author won't take research, but some most definitely will as this year taught me with a quick slap in the face. lol Hope you don't mind me using your Tweet. I meant to message you about it earlier in the week and then my brain left me apparently.

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    2. No worries. Twitter is pretty much as public as you can get.

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  18. Great points about the practical realities of any kind of race/ethnicity/religious tracking. I'm not tracking diversity at all at this point. And, if I did, I think I'd lean more towards diversity of topic / thought....which can end up leading towards diversity in authors.

    Also - I used to work in HR for a large, multinational (but U.S. headquartered) corporation and found that there was no such thing as the designation "POC" in any of our international offices. They didn't track any diversity metrics and were kind of confused by the U.S. focus on them. I'm not sure if that's similar across various companies...was just the case at mine. Also not sure what it means - just a random tidbit.

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    1. That's really interesting to me re: the HR in international offices. It definitely emphasizes the fact that this is a very real issue in the US largely given our history, I think. And the fact that in general US citizens are not as world-focused as other countries (even when it comes to current events).

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  19. Andi, we've talked a lot about this over the past week or so, so not sure if I should also comment on this post, but I wanted to publicly declare my support :-)

    I would guess that most people who say that they don't track diversity in their reading but feel they do pretty okay probably do NOT do pretty okay. I thought I did okay and then was astonished by how not okay I was doing when I did look back on my stats. I am not sure why people are so hesitant to track. Maybe because when people think about diversity in reading, they think a lot about the immigrant story or memoirs about civil wars, but I truly believe that you can diversify your reading in so many ways- you may have to change the way you FIND books, but you absolutely can find books within the genres that you enjoy that are written by diverse authors (and here, I am defining diverse as "not white.")

    I can see where the religion or "people not like me" point can get fuzzy. For example, I'm Indian, kind-of Hindu, and grew up in the US. By that definition, I could read all white authors and might consider that diverse :-) But I think that's going by the letter, not the spirit of the goal. In that case, I can see why the WNDB campaign of "not the majority" works but like you, I don't think that is specific enough for me. Probably a good place to start, though, and see what works for each reader.

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  20. I tried to start a #WNDB shelf on Goodreads and go so overwhelmed and confused by who to add to it that I ended up deleting it. I like your classification system :)

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  21. Thoughtful. Yes. I'm not terribly sure what diverse means. I get frustrated when I'm asked my ethnicity....what in the world does it mean to be "white," really? (My mother-in-law told me I should tell people asking my ethnicity that I'm Texan.)

    I try to be bold and read people's stories from different places than me. Though I draw the line at stupid people. We all have our prejudices.

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  22. I've had the same problem tracking diversity this past year. I track both whether the author is a person of color and what country they're from, but both of those can be hard to determine. More and more authors seem to be living in multiple countries which can make nationality tricky and sometimes appearance and nationality together still leave me uncertain if an author should be counted as white or not. I just do my best to figure it out :)

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  23. I fret a lot about whether to count Middle Eastern authors as people of color -- the US census doesn't, and those are the categories I generally use. I think this year I'll give them a separate category. The point for me of reading diversely is to get at voices that are underrepresented in a lot of review outlets; which I think does include people of Middle Eastern descent. (Right?) (I doubt every decision I ever make.)

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  24. The term "diverse" is so difficult to define. I think you've done a great job here of keeping it relevant to you.

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  25. Fabulous post. I was running into the same kind of problem - I was merging my spreadsheets from 2011 on to a "master" reading spreadsheet, and had to fill in "race" columns so I can track diversity stats. I ran into Kahlil Gibran, whose Lebanese, but looks like of white, but maybe Middle Eastern... I ended up googing "are Lebanese white?" or something to that effect to try to see what Lebanese define themselves as, at least in context of America's racial definitions. My diversity criteria is basically to read authors who are "non-white", but like you said, people like G. Willow Wilson are kind of on the fence, since we take religion into account as well. But basically, I just want to read a broad scope of all kinds of races, genders, sexual identities, religions, ages, etc as possible.

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  26. Love this post, Andi! I'm still working out what my exact parameters for diversity are ("diverse for me" sounds like a good general guideline"), and this post was really thought-provoking!

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  27. As someone already mentioned, one does have to be careful about evaluating diversity based on a name. People frequently assume I'm Latina, based on my name, and I'm not. (And on the flip side, no one would guess my husband is half-Mexican by looking at him! :-D)

    I'm a bit ambivalent about the whole diverse-reading thing, honestly--I made more of an effort to do it a decade ago, before blogging, than I do now, it's gotten more complicated for me. But I really like how you're approaching it, and I'm glad you shared your process!

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  28. Wow. You have the most beautiFULL, blue eyes. Bravo, girl!! Just like mine, they were meant to fly-away to Seventh-Heaven...

    Frankly, I wouldn't be tooo worried about what the bionic, bloated, whorizontal world thot about me, dear; I'd be much more concerned about what Jesus shall say at our General Judgment. You may not like me now, yet, I’m not out to please you, girl. Lemme wanna gonna tella youse Who (grrr - New Joisey accent):

    Not sure if we're on the same page if you saw what I saw. Greetings, earthling. Because I was an actual NDE on the outskirts of the Great Beyond at 15 yet wasn’t allowed in, lemme share with you what I actually know Seventh-Heaven’s Big-Bang’s gonna be like for us if ya believe: meet this ultra-bombastic, ex-mortal-Upstairs for the most extra-blatant, guhroovaliciousness (-Austin POW!ers), pleasure-beyond-measure, Ultra-Yummy, Reality-Firepower-Addiction in the Great Beyond for a BIG-ol, kick-ass, party-hardy, robust-N-risqué, eternal-real-McCoy-warp-drive you DO NOT wanna miss the sink-your-teeth-in-the-rrrock’nNsmmmokin’-hot-deal: PLEASE KEEP HANDS/FEET INSIDE THE WIDE UNTIL WE MADE A CIRCUMFERENCE OF NEVER-ENDING-POSSIBILITIES. Yes, we’ll have a high-flying, immense-impression to be an outstanding-red-marker! For God, anything and everything and more! is possible!! Puh-leeeze meet me Upstairs. Do that for us. Cya soon, girl…

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  29. I super love this post and the discussions that you clearly had leading up to it. For me, I tend to try to read translated books or books from authors in other (particularly non-Western) countries, but that's obviously not a complete definition of "diverse" reading. In reality, I think that as long as someone is making an effort to read more widely, that's something that should be applauded.

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  30. I'm struggling with this too. I'm using Shannon's reading spreadsheet and I'm writing down from which continent the writer is. I know this is not everything, but it's a start... I already realise I never read African or South-American authors. But.. if you only look at Europe there's so much difference between countries. I wouldn't know where to start if I wanted to keep track of that.

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  31. I had been wondering about this for a good part of last year. Some books are fairly easily to categorize by my diversity definition, but some books take me on a wild goose hunt for hours, and then I am so frustrated that I don't want to read the book. Great discussion post here.

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  32. This was so thoughtful! I like that you've made it a priority to research *all* authors you read, regardless of how "diverse" they may seem at first glance. This is something I could stand to do in my own reading as well.

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  33. I don't understand why you had a eeky feeling in the pit of your stomach if you select a book based on the authors skin color or family name. I host the Diversity on the Shelf reading challenge and I just posted a blog post to let everyone participating in my challenge that its a race based challenge. There is nothing (in my opinion) saying I am going to read this book about a Black kid in New York; or by this Indian woman. I hosted this reading challenge because I found the lack of racial diversity in the book blogging community. It is sad but people seem to thing race is a bad word and its not. It's a classification like gender.

    For me to find out about an author I google them and if I can't tell then I just don't count it. Olive skin is a hard one only because that might be a tan. LOL! Skin color is amazingly beautiful. All shades! Colors! and Hues!

    I love that you stepped up and wrote a post about your challenges, goals and process. Great job!

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