Why reading Roxane Gay is good for me


Dear Rebecca:

I did something unusual to start 2018: I decided to go to “reading list zero.”

What this involved: Clearing the stack of books I’ve been reading but failing to finish the last few months, and instead picking up a book or two I’d never cracked before. Part of me feels guilty about this, but starting the year with a clean reading slate feels really good. (I may return to the older books at some point, but the clean slate feels really good.)

The two books I’ve picked up are both, incidentally, by women of color. One is “Kindred,” Octavia Butler’s classic novel mixing science fiction and antebellum slavery. The other is “Hunger,” by Roxane Gay.

I’m more than halfway through “Hunger,” and I’m so glad I picked it up. Gay’s story is about growing to be a “super-obese” woman as a defense mechanism after being raped as an eighth grader. That’s not an experience I’ve had, but — as you know — my body has been broken and unruly since undergoing diverticulitis surgeries in 2011. I’m awkwardly shaped, I can’t exercise like I did prior to the injury, and the result is … kind of gross.

So: Even though I’m not a woman of color, even though I’ve never been sexually assaulted, I’ve found catharsis in Gay’s memoir.

I get this:

No matter where I am, I wonder about where I stand and how I look. I think, I am the fattest person in this apartment building. I am the fattest person in this class. I am the fattest person at this university. I am the fattest person in this theatre. I am the fattest person on this aeroplane. I am the fattest person in this airport. I am the fattest person in this city. I am the fattest person at this conference. I am the fattest person in this restaurant. I am the fattest person in this shopping mall. I am the fattest person on this panel. I am the fattest person in this casino.

I am the fattest person.

This is a constant refrain and I cannot escape it.

This is powerful and true.

My original aim today was to dismantle this piece asking if “feminism ruined The Last Jedi,” a question posed, in part, because the author believes that trying to shove women into the heroic parts usually played by men somehow is unnatural and ill-fitting.


Roxane Gay does not need my white guy validation — would probably refuse it if offered on those terms. But reading literature that comes from other perspectives and experiences, by women of color, is good for me. Where there are differences, it helps me see the world from a different angle. But it also reminds me of the commonalities.

Reading is good. Reading outside your own experience is good. I’m a better man when I do it.


An Anabaptist Jólabókaflóð: Joel Mathis can read again!


2017 was when I got my book-reading back.

A few years back I had a series of surgeries that saved my life, but left me broken. One way I was left injured: A clumping of conditions that, together, created rather severe sleep deprivation on my part. Book reading was impossible – I could never go more than a page at a time.

This year, I had a septoplasty. My nasal passages were broken, and the rough places made plain. The result? I can breathe. More importantly, I breathe when I sleep. Which means I sleep more. Which means I can read.

Oh, God, how good it feels to read again.

Here are some of the books I read with my re-acquired abilities this year:

A Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood: This was a great TV show this year, apparently — I don’t know: I never watched. Instead, I was one of the many, many people who made this dystopian feminist novel the most-read book of the year at Amazon. It’s a reminder that when authoritarianism comes, it often crushes women most harshly.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders: I’ve been reading George Saunders’ short stories for years: His Man Booker Prize-winning first novel is typically brilliant. What Saunders does in his writing: Combines a highly formal, experimental approach with a deep, deep humanity. That’s tricky to pull off — innovation in literature can often feel cold, sterile, and stuffy. Saunders’ writing can challenge your brain and make you feel. It’s a tough combination to pull off.

How to Think by Alan Jacobs/Civility by Stephen L. Carter: These two books were written 20 years apart, and ostensibly about different topics. But they share a theme: We’re doing a lousy job of treating people with different ideas – bad ideas – as our neighbor. There’s a reason for that: It’s hard work! And right now, we’re so angry and polarized as a people it seems reasonable to wonder if we can ever back away from this permanent cultural firefight we seem embedded in. I think we can – we have to, if we want to survive as a people. These two books offer a good start in thinking about how to do that.

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, by Michael Eric Dyson: Ta-Nehisi Coates has made his name in recent years diagnosing the white supremacy that afflicts America; Dyson – literally writing in a sermon form here – builds on that diagnosis and offers something more: Thoughts about how white Americans can recognize their participation — and how to end it. Dyson is more congenial than Coates, but don’t misunderstand: There’s a lot of anger here, and a lot of reason for it.

Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, by Rick Perlstein: All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again.


An Anabaptist Jólabókaflóð: Tom Smith’s faves

Tom Smith lives in the New York City neighborhood that’s located somewhere between Harrisonburg, Va and the Bronx. He’s a counselor at Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center, a program of The Alliance for Positive Change. He spends the rest of his time using mass transit as a poorly lit, mobile reading room. He can be found on Goodreads using the email pileofgreyrocks@gmail.com and on Twitter as @gambolloch.

Here’s some of his favorite reads:

51T8DSgiusLBeatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year, Steve Turner
1966 was a busy year for the Beatles. It was the year they first saw another kind of mind with LSD, compared themselves with Jesus, stopped touring, released Revolver, and began recording Sgt Pepper’s. I had a lot of fun reading this and actually learned a bit more about one of my favorite bands.

Mean, by Myriam Gurba
Mean is a coming-of-age memoir about a lesbian woman of color growing up in white suburban California. It is at times very disturbing, and I offer it with several trigger warnings. Gurba pulls no punches as she talks frankly about her personal experience of racism, homophobia, sexual assault, and trauma. That said, she also manages to write a genre bending piece of nonfiction that is also funny, raw, and beautiful. In the space of a page I went from almost crying to laughing out loud.

The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again, by A.C. Wise
It’s a collection of interconnected stories about a group of women who keep the world safe from evil scientists, robots, and monsters. A.C. Wise writes a fun book that is filled with camp and heart. I would love to see this as a graphic novel or an animated series.

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee
I’m a sucker for a good family saga and Pachinko delivers. It is a novel that follows several generations of a family from Korea living in Japan in the years before and after WWII. It’s a deeply compassionate book filled with complex characters and a rich narrative.

The Leavers, by Lisa Ko
I became a Leavers evangelist this year. If we met and talked about books, chances were that I was going to bring it up. It’s about Deming Guo, a boy living in the Bronx, whose mother, an undocumented immigrant from China, suddenly disappears without a trace. He’s adopted by a white couple who live in a small town in Upstate New York and is left to rebuild his life as best as can as he struggles with unanswered questions.

Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers, edited by by Cat Fitzpatrick (Editor), Casey Plett (Editor)
This is a solid collection of SF short fiction that is jam packed with stories from wide variety of genres from space opera to post apocalypse. No anthology is perfect, but I was impressed with how many great stories were included and I have continued to think about many of them long after I finished reading them.


For a little perspective: Read

Dear Rebecca:

Everything feels shitty this week, right? Like we’re at the end of the world and nothing will ever be good again?

It especially feels that way, I suspect, if you marinate — as I do too much — in the tidal waves of political rage that define much of Twitter and Facebook. But I have a solution to this: Read. It can help one regain perspective.

I’ve been reading Rick Perlstein’s “Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus,” which is turning out to be handy as a guide to the roots of our modern politics, but also to realize that while history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, it very often does rhyme.

There’s the apocalyptic rhetoric:

Screen Shot 2017-10-04 at 8.23.45 AM.png
The “deplorables” have always resented the elites: Screen Shot 2017-10-04 at 8.25.37 AM

Conservative leaders tend to resent compromise or negotiation of any sort:

Screen Shot 2017-10-04 at 8.27.22 AM.png

And Americans are always arming the shit out of themselves to ward off tyranny, with the side effect of terrorizing the rest of us.

There’s more — and hey, I’m only a quarter of the way through the book — and while it’s all kind of terrifying, it’s also weirdly comforting: There’s little that’s new in our troubles. Mostly we survived. Which means we can do it again.

Reading might not save us. But at least we’ll die with a head full of facts and stories.

Literarily, Joel

Douglas Koziol and the virtues of reading all the way to the damn end

Dear Rebecca:


A conservative friend — I think we’re friends — linked angrily today to this piece at The Millions. It wasn’t hard to see why. Check it out.

So what can you do when a customer wants a book that you not only find objectionable but also believe actually dangerous in the lessons it portends amidst such a politically precarious time? If it helps, swap Elegy for any book that you find particularly insidious, whether it’s Atlas Shrugged, The Communist Manifesto, or The Bible. The question remains: without stooping to the level of crazed book-burning, does the bookseller’s role ever evolve past the capitalist exchange of money for paper and pulp? And are there meaningful ways to resist the continued sales of disastrous books?

This was offered as proof of the censorious nature of “progressivism.” And the piece’s commenters agreed:

It’s called freedom. It may be dangerous to you, or you may dislike it, or disagree with it, but none of those three personal views gives you the right to stop anyone else from reading it.

The moment you decide your role is to act as a gatekeeper shutting out the unworthy books, rather than a guide opening the door to new ones, you’re part of the problem. You’re no better than any other small-minded librarian/bookseller impeding access to books of which they do not approve.

What a load of elitist arrogant BS. And the author probably thinks they are being open minded. Keep doing you liberals.

One small problem: While the quoted paragraph above does indeed express the problem the writer, Douglas Koziol, was wrestling with, it doesn’t at all reflect his conclusions, or the fullness of his throught process and actions in getting there.


All of this is to say that I’ve yet to find a way to tactfully handle the subject. Even now, I fear that I’m slipping into a haughty and unproductive tone—that of an ideologically perfect soul who can’t seem to break through to the rubes. And that’s the last thing a bookseller or writer should be.


I can hide the stacks of Hillbilly Elegy in the back (if my boss is reading this, I’m just kidding). But I suspect that the most fundamental thing I can do is also perhaps the most trite: I can try to start conversations. Independent bookstores have continued to thrive in the face of the Amazon-ization of everything precisely because of their human component, and what is more human than honest-to-god conversation? But in order for this to be effective, it would require equal parts listening. Listening to what made the person gravitate towards the book in the first place, listening while withholding judgment, listening as if I don’t know all the answers.

What a powerful conclusion! Overcoming a censorious instinct to embrace humility, embrace listening and embrace understanding! We should want much more of this in our society than we’re getting right now. We should be praising Koziol for his honesty and his conclusion.

But instead, most of Koziol’s readers are acting like folks who, having heard the setup of a “knock knock” joke without hearing the punchline, have decided to condemn the evils of doorbells. Too bad. Reading to the end could’ve saved a lot of heartache.

Still reading?