It’s been hard to find time and focus to write a blog post recently – since we got back from our amazing three-week holiday in Thailand, I’ve been busy. Busy with my ordinary work at Woodbrooke, which remains fun and interesting: examining a PhD thesis, starting an online course on discernment, planning future courses, meeting new colleagues. Busy with other work, like offering private tuition for A-level Religious Studies students. Busy with voluntary work, including being co-editor of Quaker Studies and serving on Britain Yearly Meeting’s Book of Discipline Revision Committee. Busy with family and friends – a family member is seriously ill, friends have been struggling, lots which I can’t discuss in public. And of course busy with the everyday of life: laundry, washing up, proofreading bits of my wife’s PhD work, finding time to do my own writing (especially when I have academic book chapters and conference papers with due dates looming…).
But among all that, I always read a fair amount, and at the beginning of January I thought I’d have a new year’s resolution to try and balance my reading in any given month. Challenges for reading a more diverse range of books come in lots of forms. The one I designed for myself gives me six categories of books to focus on – I aim to read at least one in each category in each month. Some might count for more than one category. I normally read between twelve and fifteen books a month, so six in categories leaves me space for other things as well. My six categories for 2023 are:
- a book by an author who is LGBTQI+
- a book by an author of colour
- a book by an author who lives somewhere other than the UK or the USA
- a sapphic romance book
- a book which contributes to my ‘uses of Quaker history’ research project
- a book of academic philosophy, theology, or study of religion
Some of these are the sort of diverse reading challenges I see on TikTok – at the moment, for example, Black History Month in the USA is coming up and lots of people are recommending authors of colour. Others are much more personal – other people might also be researching Quaker history but only I get to decide what contributes to my project! I’m pleased to say that in January I managed to read in all of these categories, and in this post I’d like to share a few comments on the things I’ve read.
For the first two categories, I got two books which could fit into both. I was given Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath as a Christmas present, and it made an excellent start on this: it’s a fun story about a college-age Puetro Rican lesbian from New York who sets out to find herself and ends up learning a lot about coming out and family responses to it, feminism (including the gifts and failings of white feminism), and what it means to love in many different ways. Gabby Rivera, like her main character, is a lesbian with Puetro Rican heritage, and also the author of a Marvel comic book series about America Chavez.
From my local library, I borrowed Akwaeke Emezi’s novel The Death of Vivek Oji. This is very different in tone – it starts with a death, rather than a coming out – but addresses many overlapping issues, especially about how older generations in families come to terms with the identities of their younger members. Emezi is a nonbinary author who handles complex gender and sexuality issues with skill. I don’t want to say too much about the plot because it would easily be spoiled, but I will say that it finished in a much more hopeful place than I anticipated at the beginning. I also enjoyed the deft characterisation and judicious use of Nigerian languages and dialect.
In fact, I did well in these categories and had a couple of other books this month which would have qualified. Bolu Babalola’s Honey & Spice is an excellent straight romance by a British Nigerian author – it’s funny and clever and uses romance tropes brilliantly, and left me wanting to spend more time with the characters (I would absolutely read a sequel!). And Sandi Toksvig’s memoir-cum-historical ramble, Between the Stops: The View of My Life from the Top of the Number 12 Bus talks about all sorts of aspects of her life, including coming out as a lesbian at a time when that was much less common in public life than now, and her quest for greater gender equality in everything from politics to street names.
But all of those authors, diverse as they are in some ways, are currently working in either the UK or the USA, and the point of my next challenge is to move beyond that. A book which fitted and had been sitting on my to-read shelf since I picked it up in a charity shop a while ago was Colm Tóibín’s The Heather Blazing, set in the Republic of Ireland, written by an author who is based there, and among other things exploring the politics of Ireland and how political views on topics like sex before marriage have changed over time. It’s a quiet, thoughtful read, which explores situations rather than presenting an exciting plot or stating character’s views, but very effectively prompts the reader to reflect on the ethics of what’s happening.
The first three challenges are about reading a wide range of different authors. The next three are about content, and in particular reading to feed my different areas of work. The aim of reading a sapphic romance book every month is to try and expand my awareness of this specific niche market, a market into which I’m trying to sell my novel Between Boat & Shore (and the sequel to it, on which I’m currently working). For this category this month I chose, and borrowed from the local library, Lily Lindon’s romcom Double Booked. It turned out that the emphasis was more on the comedy than the romance so this might be a slight cheat, but I’m happy to include it here for two reasons – one, from the marketing I’d guessed it would follow more romance genre conventions than it actually did, which is an important lesson about marketing, and two, the main character is bi rather than lesbian and it’s good to establish that bi women are included in my category of sapphic characters. Also, putting the emphasis on the comedy really worked and it was a very good, sometimes laugh out loud, read.
Understanding Quaker history and how it has been used is a huge project, and I finished two books this month which fit into different parts of this work. One was H. Larry Ingle’s biography of George Fox, First Among Friends, which I started last year and needed to finish. The other was Ann Bell’s historical novel, The Sister of Mary Dyer, which is an interesting example of how fiction can be used to make history more accessible; in this case, Bell imagines that Dyer had a sister who was less committed to the Quaker cause and is able to raise questions about the situation which the reader might have.
Finally, Mathew Guest’s sociology of religion book Neoliberal Religion was my academic read for the month. He looks at a variety of ways in which neoliberal economic ideas (including about the importance of markets, a focus on the individual, and the ‘post-truth’ era) have affected religious groups. He makes a convincing case for the impact of these ideas, and I found his nuancing of secularisation through this lens particularly useful. He also ends with a call for more work on the ethics of the sociology of religion, which seems right to me.
Now it’s the first of February and I need to make sure I have books in all six categories for this month! Feel free to comment with recommendations in any category (or none – I read other things as well).