There are many benefits of being in a book club – one being that you suddenly have access to a lot of books you wouldn’t get to read otherwise. Friends don’t just lend you books from their personal collections but also point you to affordable ways of acquiring them – holiday sales, book fairs, second-hand bookshops, and sometimes, piracy.
I wasn’t a big fan of piracy – I considered it wrong and always ignored the roadside booksellers selling pirated copies of books almost everyone has heard of – Rich Dad, Poor Dad, The Secret, Becoming, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, etc. I didn’t like ebooks so there was no question of pirating those either.
But recently, I’ve realized that ebooks aren’t that bad. I still won’t get a Kindle – I like holding books; I like the feel of them, their smell. I like the chore of dusting my books and cleaning the bookshelf every two weeks, sorting them by colour and looking at the finished display with pride. But sometimes an ebook is the only accessible format of a particular work I have access to. Especially during the lockdown, when libraries are closed.
Last year, friends from the book club introduced me to a couple of new authors that I ended up loving and adding to my list of favorites – Jonathan Stroud (for his Lockwood and Co. books) and Brandon Sanderson (for the Stormlight Archive and other books I’m yet to read) – through piracy. They shared their digital copies with me and I read them addicitively – the books were pure fun. Somewhere, guilt did stab me – I was reading a pirated copy. I was depriving an author of his money – writing is a really difficult job and not every writer makes a living through book sales.
But piracy was the only way I could access those books – I’m a college student paying for my own expenses by tutoring school kids. The library I’m a member of doesn’t have many of the books I want to read.
That eased some of my guilt, along with the fact that there’s not much difference between pirating a book and borrowing it from a friend. In both cases, I get to read the book without paying a penny to the author. Also, a part of me argued, the writers I was pirating were bestselling authors. Surely, that part of me reasoned, their lives wouldn’t be any different if they didn’t get the money from one single copy of their book.
And so my guilt lessened. But it was still there. I did not like the idea of pirating every book on my to-read list just because I could. I’m a writer; I’ve been paid for my writing and I still send stuff out, hoping it gets accepted, hoping I get to save a little more for my studies. It’s unfair, then, to not give my money to struggling authors for their good work, work that I loved.
So I decided that I’ll buy the book when I can – when it’s affordable and I have the money – or borrow it from a friend or the library. Pirating, I decided, would be the last resort. Many of the books on my to-read list are also in the public domain, so there’s that advantage.
Despite this, piracy still nagged me, so I decided to take a look at all the books I’d read since 2012, when I first became a bookworm, till yesterday, 16 May 2020, my 20th birthday, to see how many books I’d acquired through piracy. I also decided to note other variables – who had written the books, their race, their nationality, the language, the genre, etc. to get an idea of how diverse my reading had been.
The following infographic gives an overview, followed by my key takeaways from this part-tedious, part-fun statistical study of the books I’ve read.
- European and American authors dominate the list; India is close behind. I have read hardly any books from South America, Africa and the rest of Asia. My main goal is reading less Western stuff, because in the last couple of years, I’ve realized how Western stories and Western ideas and Western dreams and Western fantasies have shaped my outlook and approach to my very Indian life and the society around me. There’s an incongruence because these are two different worlds, and I’m trying to find one in the other, missing out the beauty of the one I live in. The next step, then, is to read more about India, about the things and places and people closer home to understand them better. As a future psychologist, it’ll only help me do my job better.
- When it comes to authors, I’d expected men to outnumber women by a large margin, but it’s only about 10%, so I could close that gap with a few careful choices. But I won’t pick up a book just because a woman wrote it, or ignore a good book because a man wrote it. It’s about finding more good books written by women.
- The case is not the same for white authors and authors of colour. White authors dominate three-quarters of the list, which means I have to read more diverse voices to improve my reading diet. Racism is a more a Western issue, but just because I won’t probably have to encounter it in my practice in the future doesn’t mean there’s no reason to open myself up to diverse perspectives. If there’s one thing Indians have in common with people of color from other parts of the world, it’s the shared history of colonization and its lingering aftereffects – the obsession with fair skin, a sense of superiority because of one’s proficiency in English, and so on.
- A little more than a third of the authors on the list are dead. This is I bothered to note simply because I have no reservations about not paying for the works of dead people. And these people have been dead for long – most of them died more than twenty-thirty years ago. Though I still might buy a particular book by a dead author if I really want to own it and scribble in it and go through it again and again.
- Almost 60% of the books I’ve spent money on were bought offline. I’m happy that it is so; after learning how Amazon treats its workers and the need to support independent booksellers, I’m going to do my best to give my money where it makes a difference.
- Close to 60% of the books I’ve read were borrowed from friends or the library. Goes on to show how libraries make knowledge accessible (and the perks of being in a book club).
- There’s not much meaning to be derived from which genres I’ve indulged in the most, though recently I’ve been super-obsessed with fantasy (thanks to Brandon Sanderson) and mysteries (only by Agatha Christie, though).
- I’ve hardly read any LGBTQIA+ authors. I have read books with LGBTQIA+ characters, but that’s nothing to be proud of. This is one area where I need to make more effort, not just because I’ll inevitably have queer clients someday but because I want to be a better ally than I am.
- Finally, I also need to read more books written in languages other than English. Even if I look just at Indian literature, there’s a wealth of stories written in regional languages I’ve yet to read. Translation will help bridge that gap.
What was the point of this exercise?
Firstly, as I explained above, I noticed I was pirating a lot of books recently and that made me feel guilty. So I wanted to take a look at my book-buying habits to see where my money was going.
Secondly, as someone who wants to work with people, as someone for whom empathy will be her job, it only makes sense to expose myself to a variety of perspectives to understand what it is to be human – be it in terms of race, gender, sexuality, economic status, etc.
Perhaps I should have also made note of the problematic authors I’ve read. I don’t know how many there are, but I do know that I was unaware of their being problematic when I read the books. That’s important because, for me, the art vs artist debate has ended – if the author is an asshole, I’m not going to read them.
Final note: I’ve stopped judging people’s ethics based on who and what they read. You’re not a bad person if you mostly have thrillers by white men on your bookshelf. Maybe your job is draining and the books give you some excitement. Not that you couldn’t read thrillers written by women, but it’s not a compulsion. Maybe your bookshelf is an assortment of a variety of authors and you never really paid attention to how diverse your (or not) your collection was because you’re struggling with your mental illness and read for an escape. Maybe authors of color make up most of your collection because you make a conscious effort to read marginalized voices. No one is better or worse than the others.
Everyone reads for different reasons. We have no right to tell a person who or what they read, or why they should read.
The art we consume is just one part of who we are. No one gets extra points for having a diverse bookshelf, because in the end, it’s all about being (or trying to be) a good person. Reading a book is merely the first step towards it.