My Year of Reading Women

My reading had sort of collapsed in the recent past, especially from 2014 to 2016. The reason behind this was mostly extreme frugality, brought on by trying to pay for a house. So I was not buying books. What I was doing a lot of instead was:

  • reading longform articles by sending them to my Kindle (which means not reading a lot of fiction)
  • reading out of copyright books (which has the side effect of reading a lot of dead white people1
  • rereading what I already had

and starting in late 2015 and throughout 2016:

  • reading my wife’s collection of books

2017 saw a massive turnaround for three reasons:

  1. The benevolent Masabi gave me the username and password to his account at the Brooklyn Public Library, which let me borrow ebooks from there to my American registered Kindle2
  2. I joined Goodreads at the beginning of the year with a measure of skepticism about how useful it could be, but found that simply enrolling for a reading challenge made me competitive and determined to complete it – and so I ended up reading a lot instead of, say, listening to podcasts or wasting my time on Twitter
  3. I finally paid off what I had to for house reconstruction, and the liberated cashflow meant that I could buy books to my heart’s content.

All this together has meant that I have read ninety one new books in 2017, apart from a lot of rereading. At the beginning of the year, when I enrolled in Goodreads, I set myself a target of fifty-two books, or was it fifty? I finished the fiftieth, fifty first, and fifty second books just before the end of June; and promptly revised my target to a hundred books for the year. In November, though, encountering a rough patch of great Russian novelists, I decided to slow down, enjoy rereads instead (more on that later), and not worry overmuch about hitting a hundred. And so, yesterday, I wrapped up at ninety one for the year. Here’s my Goodreads 2017 challenge page, which lays them out in an attractive grid.

I will save the highlights of the books themselves for later. But first, I will mention something else which using Goodreads prompted me to do – seeing how many books my women, and how many books by men I was reading3.

At the beginning of the year, I had not really set myself a target on reading men and women, and only wanted to monitor myself for implicit bias. By the end of January, I had realised that I was reading almost only men, and in mild embarrasment at the ratio, without having even set myself a target, set out to improve it. This took a long, long, time; because I was also working through my existing to-be-read pile, which at that point was almost all men.

By the end of January, my ratio of books by women to books by men was 1:3. At this point I tried to compensate, which meant going to the Brooklyn Public Library’s ebook catalogue, going through their history and science sections, and checking out as many interesting looking books by women as possible. By the beginning of May, the ratio had moved up to 12:19. It wasn’t until July 6, when I finished Deirdre McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues, that I had finally read one book by a woman for every book by a man.

However, even before hitting the comforting 1.0 ratio, I was begninning to wonder if a simple ratio of books was telling me enough about my sexism, if any. It was so easy to change the ratio by simply picking out books at the Brooklyn library, did the ratio convey any useful information at all? So I decided to take my self-monitoring one step further, and duplicated my Goodreads records in an Excel file. Then, with the power of pivot tables, I set out to see if I was rating books by women lower than I was rating books by men. In the Excel sheet, I recorded:

  • The name of the book
  • The name of the author (s)
  • Whether it was fiction, nonfiction, or mythology
  • Whether the authors were male, female, or the book had a mix of male and female creators
  • The rating I had given the book

I now realise that I should have also recorded the date I finished the book, which would have allowed me to make cool graphs of how my books by women / books my men ratio changed over time. Alas, I didn’t, and can only promise to do it for 2018 records onwards. For what it’s worth, my Excel sheet is uploaded over here, so if you want to do your own pivot table analyses, please go ahead. But this is what my playing around has led me to conclude:

  1. On the simplest measure – ratio of books – I finished at 48 books by women to 42 books by men.
  2. However, because I was acutely aware of this ratio, I kept trying to improve it by reading more books by any woman author whose books I liked. So my ratio of authors is 37 women to 35 men.
  3. Separating into nonfiction, fiction, and mythology reveals a massive mismatch: In fiction, I read 28 books by men to 23 by women; and in nonfiction I read 25 books by women compared to 12 by men. This is probably a reflection of how I tried to improve my raw ratio by browsing the nonfiction section of the library to find interesting books by women, but didn’t try that with the fiction section.
  4. Breaking down into even smaller genres might reveal more such mismatches, but I haven’t tried that yet.
  5. The reason I gamed my raw ratio with nonfiction but not fiction is that with nonfiction it seemed easier to judge a book by its cover. I felt that taking a chance on a book I had never heard about or been recommended already was easier with nonfiction books, where the cover and blurbs would tell me if at least the topic was interesting or not. With fiction, I wanted to stay with personal recommendations.
  6. Taking a chance on nonfiction I had never heard of earlier really paid off with:
    1. Steam: The Untold Story of America’s First Invention
    2. The Birth of the Pill
    3. Pandemic
    4. Meathooked
  7. Coming finally to ratings. My average rating of books by female authors was 3.58, and for male authors it was 3.69. So I did rate books by men a little higher, but apparently not even by one standard deviation higher.
  8. What if I break it down by category again? This falls two ways. In fiction, my average rating for books by men was 3.78 and for women it was 3.48; a much wider difference than in the overall average. In nonfiction, I rated books by men at 3.58, and books by women at 3.68. Again, the difference is less than one standard deviation in all categories.
  9. I think the one thing in which I may be guilty of implicit bias is in how likely I am to give five star ratings. I gave the full five stars to 6 books by men (4 fiction and 2 nonfiction), but only 2 books by women (one each). So even though I rate women higher on average, I give exceptional ratings to women much less. Ed Yong’s Atlantic essay on how the science Nobel Prizes awarding rules end up making a few lucky scientists famous and lionised but excluding all their collaborators – especially the women – may be a relevant parallel.

Turning now from the numbers to the books themselves, these are the highlights from my 2017 reading:

  • My wife introduced me to Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians series, which was probably the most fun I had this year with lowbrow but very funny fiction.
  • Some years ago, I had asked for recommendations for climate fiction, and friend Sowmya Rao recommended about fifteen books (some not exactly climate fiction but generalised science fiction). What with the whole not-buying-books thing, I only got around to reading most of these in 2017. This meant that I was reading lots of apocalyptic science fiction for a stretch of almost four months, and may have scared myself into never having children. The apocalyptic note carried over to nonfiction in Jane Jacobs’s Dark Age Ahead. At the same time, though, the past two years of reading about Tesla left me slightly annoyed at some of these apocalypse scenarios, because I kept asking “Bloody, how is it that nobody installed solar panels before the apocalypse hit?” This was a question that arose particularly in Station Eleven and The Bone Clocks. Later in the year, I read All The Birds in the Sky, not on Sowmya’s recommendation, and while enjoying it thoroughly, was slightly exasperated at having stumbled into more apocalyptica; but at least this was apocalyptic science fiction that did not rely on a magical disappearance of photovoltaics.
  • The books which friends had raved about and which I found deeply disappointing compared to the hype were Ghachar Ghochar and Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem and its sequels. While both were good, they were definitely not the “best books of the decade!” that friends were proclaiming them to be.
  • Chasing the female-male ratio meant that after a gap of years, I read more books in the Mary Russel series, and more books by Sarah Waters, and I was very glad of this.
  • In a lot of the fiction I read in 2017, I found myself loving the beauty of the writing, while being repelled at the characters or the underlying assumptions about human nature. This includes The MagiciansThe Master and MargaritaThis is How You Lose Her, and Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.
  • Many years ago, I had read the citation for Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel prize, thought ‘Oh this sounds interesting’, and promptly wishlisted two of her books. I finally got around to reading them this year (that budget thing at play again), and realised that this had been a rash decision, as the books in question were intended for at least graduate students of economics or public choice, and not dilettantes such as myself. I persevered with the books, but it took ages, and after many years of peace I was reprimanding myself for not having had the discipline to go through with an Econ PhD. So it goes.
  • In November, my reading queue included The Master and Margarita, another book by Elinor Ostrom, and the vast and expansive Bourgeois Equality. After the first half of The Master and Margarita fully justified Cuthbert Banks‘s gloom about the mantle of the great Russians, I looked at the queue, and decided not only to not bother with hitting my target of a hundred books, but to plunge into comfort rereading – and so I did a binge reread of the entire Discworld series (not including the Tiffany Aching books, though). Reading the series in one go, in such a short period of time, meant that I was able to see connections between the books that I hadn’t earlier; discovered that ten years on, I was still able to smile at new things and say ‘Oh so that’s what Terry Pratchett was going for’; developed new respect for Reaper Man, and formed some interesting thoughts on how to classify monsters, which deserve a blogpost to themselves.
  • I found myself making connections between otherwise unrelated books. danah boyd’s It’s Complicated, Jane Jacobs’s Dark Age Ahead, and Ed Gleaser’s Triumph of the City all ended up cribbing about American suburbia, but each talked about a different bad outcome it was leading to. Pandemic connected both to the apocalyptic science fiction I was reading, and to Maryn McKenna’s fantastic Big Chicken. So did David Benatar’s “having children will only perpetuate the suffering of the human species” book Better Never to Have Been, which I am still thinking over, but finding hard to dismiss.
  • Out of “new women science fiction writers”, I ended up not liking Nnedi Okarafor’s Binti, but eager to try her other books, and liking N K Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy but also finding it a bit of a chore. Surprisingly, the easiest to read in this microgenre was Becky Chamber’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – which is a little short on plot and surprise twists, but which I found a very comforting read and charming in its worldbuilding and lack of pretentiousness. Perhaps if I had read any of these books in a different sequence, my opinion would be different. I think they are all worth rereading to find out.
  • I finally finished the year with Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Equality. Like the other books in the trilogy, it’s expansive and maximalist, a style which I enjoy, and so it was a great book to close the year with. That maximalism meant that it also linked in interesting ways with lots of other books I’d read in 2017, which also made it a particularly appropriate book to close the year with. Some of those linkages were:
    • I loved Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, in which KSR goes ‘What if the Black Death had killed all of Europe instead of just a third?’, and then sketches an alternative history in which the Industrial Revolution happens in Central Asia instead of Europe (among other things). Bourgeois Equality though spends a lot of time talking about how the Industrial Revolution was a massive coincidence, and on all the reasons why it wouldn’t have arisen anywhere else, thus pouring cold water on The Years of Rice and Salt. So it goes.
    • The Discworld binge reread made me realise that McCloskey’s Bourgeois trilogy is the nonfiction exploration of all the same themes that Pratchett poured into fiction: the value of rhetoric and Vetinari’s opinions about politics, the awfulness of how aristocracy gathered violence through warmaking being reflected in Lord Rust’s suicidal charges, the disgust with aristocracy in general being reflected in Sam Vimes’s rage; and of course the Bourgeois Revaluation itself being taken up and explored in all the books from say, Feet of Clay onwards. Heck, there is even a bit in Bourgeois Equality which directly mimics the passage about Ankh Morpork tearing down its city walls.
    • Of course McCloskey references Elinor Ostrom’s work on how communication can overcome the Prisoner’s Dilemma (Please be aware that this is a gross oversimplification for the purposes of this blogpost).

What are my plans for next year’s reading? In no particular order:

  • Continue to track my reading of women vs men, and particularly try to find fiction by women.
  • Read all the source material Bourgeois Equality threw up, particularly The Theory of Moral Sentiments and Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.
  • Track my date of reading, source of book, and money spent or saved through cunning library utilisation along with everything else I’m tracking.
  • Instead of chasing an impressive looking number of books, allow myself to take the time to slowly read in languages other than English. I am planning to read Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari and a German young adult time travel trilogy for sure.

That wraps it up for my review of 2017 reading. I look forward to reading about what you have read this year.

  1. Usually the catchphrase is dead white men, but I was reading so many Jane Austen and Bronte sisters books that I feel safe in modifying it
  2. This is why I recommend having two Kindles – one registered to an amazon.com account and one to an amazon.in account
  3. I use that clunky phrase because this gives a different answer to how many women and how many men I am reading.

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