Ask a Book Nerd: I can't concentrate when I read diverse books!

Ask a Book Nerd: I can't concentrate when I read diverse books!

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One of my favorite things about running a book blog is all the people who ask me for book recommendations and for other advice about their reading lives.

I’ve also never met someone who had a truly unique struggle or problem that only they experienced. So I figured I’d share the advice I gave––anonymously, of course––in case it helps other folks.

This inspired the creation of a new series… Ask a Book Nerd! A literary advice column.

Let’s dive into the first question.

I tend to read the same genre by the same authors and stay away from stories based in other countries/cultures because I get hung up on words and phrases I don't understand or know how to pronounce. And I'm just OCD enough to let it impinge on my concentration. My friend xxxxx, the Uber Reader – (over 200 books a year) – says to skim over whatever bothers me but that usually doesn't work either. What can I do?

Loser Reader 

Dear Loser Reader,

I’d rather not call you that, but since you called yourself “Loser Reader” I didn’t want to change your signature. I think it’s also interesting that you call yourself that since it implies that you’re feeling some guilt about not wanting to read diversely, so let’s start with that first.

I’ll confess that I’ve only been making an effort to read diversely since 2014. Before that, I felt similarly to how you do. I thought books about people in different countries or cultures were for “those people”––meaning, people who could call those countries and cultures home.

A couple of things changed my mind. 1) I got progressively more liberal over the years and it felt weird to me to not vote for someone who espoused racist policies, for example, while at the same time I knew so little about people of color. I thought reading books by and about people of color would add layers and nuance to the empathy I was developing, and I wasn’t wrong. 2) I was reading a lot and I started to get bored. When you only read books about straight, white, cis-gendered, middle class people, it’s easy to get bored when you read a lot. Even though the majority of books published are by authors whose characters hit that demographic, things start to get repetitive after awhile.

You mentioned that you get hung up on words and phrases you don’t understand and don’t know how to pronounce. I’m going to push back on that because no one comes out of the womb speaking any language perfectly, even one’s native tongue. And no matter how old you are or how much you read, there are always going to be words––even in English––that you don’t know, can’t define, and can’t pronounce. Yet I doubt you have the same resistance when confronted with these words in English.

Rather than thinking of words and phrases you don’t know as cumbersome or a burden as you’re reading, think of them as opportunities. It might momentarily take you out of the story to google a phrase or look up a word in the dictionary, but if it aids in your understanding of the book, it can only help you. I’d argue that it’d be more frustrating to guess at a meaning and get it wrong, or worse, beat yourself up because you don’t know something, and have that turn an otherwise good reading experience sour.

I’d also argue that authors from different countries and cultures have had to pander to the tastes English-speaking people for a long time. There’s a reason why a lot of books with the occasional word in a foreign language italicize the word: it signals to the English-speaking reader “Hey! Lookout! Here’s a foreign word!” The italics aren’t for the benefit of the people who speak that language since they would presumably already know the word and be familiar with it. This is just one of the many ways authors from non-English speaking countries and cultures are at a disadvantage in our predominantly white publishing industry.

And, like any activity, the more you do it, the better you’ll get and the more comfortable you’ll feel. Eventually, you’ll see so many new and different things that something new and different won’t frighten you. Imagine all the things you’ll learn. Some languages have words and phrases that don’t have an English equivalent, so for me, one of the things I love about learning words in different languages is being able to describe experiences that I’ve recognized before but didn’t know how to put into words. Schadenfreude, anyone? And how about my personal favorite: tsundoku.

Additionally, the English language is chock full of words and phrases from other languages that have been incorporated into common English... Fiancé. Shampoo. Cul-de-sac. Tattoo. Tsunami. Avatar. Hoi polloi. Aficionado. Ballet. Cafe. Faux pas. Kindergarten. Lingerie. Klutz. Spiel. Macho. Karaoke. Gung-ho. Paparazzi. I could go on.

At one time, all of these words were “strange” and have now been adopted into English such that most English speakers have forgotten where they originally came from. There are new foreign words being adopted all the time, likely including some of the ones you’re reading.

I don’t say all this to guilt trip you worse than it seems from your signature you’re already guilt-tripping yourself. This is just to give you a new perspective and some things to think about that I hope will help you appreciate diverse books more. Sure, there’s a learning curve, but it’s rewarding and worthwhile.

And at the end of the day, no one can make you read anything you don’t want to. You can read the same books by the same authors all you want and that’s totally fine. There are people who do that every day and go their whole lives reading within narrow parameters. No one is going to hold a jagged bookmark to your temple and cover you in paper cuts for not reading diversely.

But since you asked me what I think, I say reading diversely is worth your time and I’d encourage you to give it another try. I hope what I’ve said here is enlightening as well as encouraging. I hope you’ll let me know how it goes!


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I was quoted in Publishers Weekly!

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