rethinking reading statistics

Rethinking Reading Statistics

rethinking reading statistics

For the past few years, a growing push for diversity in publishing and reading has led to campaigns like We Need Diverse Books and a focus on diversity throughout the bookish internet. One way many readers, myself included, have hoped to increase diverse reading is by tracking books and documenting reading statistics. Last week, BookTuber OneSmallPaw wrote a fabulous, thought-provoking post called Booktube Stats and the Denial of Intersections (which Monika at Lovely Bookshelf also highlighted in her Sunday Salon post) looking at some of the problems with these statistics. Danielle’s major concern is the erasure of intersections when tracking for diversity, which I’d highly recommend you read in her own words (including her follow up post). I know many others have expressed similar concerns, so I’m not sure if its timing or the way Danielle phrased everything, but this is the first time everything really came together the right way for me.

“The harmful nature of the graphs becomes even more apparent when compared with these creators’ graphs of their genre trends. There may be twenty categories representing all different types of books, but individual identities get boiled down to a mere two. Can a graph featuring two identifiers really represent all the diversity that exists in literature?”

Statistics

And there it is. Straight from my own blog, right below multiple genre categories.

The initial reaction for some is to get defensive, to skip over the idea that makes them feel uncomfortable or wrong and jump to something they can criticize instead. I know, I’ve done it before. But when I looked at my statistics after reading Danielle’s post, it was clear something wasn’t right. Among other fantastic points, Danielle mentions, “If you care about the LGBTQ+ community, you will think about your use of only two gender identifiers.” and I hadn’t even considered it.

I’ve never set goals for any of my reading categories, since it was less about reaching a specific point and more about making me aware. And it’s worked. I actively seek out titles by diverse authors, make lists for my library to purchase, and understand that I have to look a little beyond what’s put in front of me by most publishers. Now that this is part of my reading life, will it change just because I don’t enter a number in a spreadsheet? I would hope not.

That said, I do think tracking can be useful, but each method I’ve mulled over still seems problematic. Take the 2014 Women of Color VIDA Count.

“When we undertook the conception of the 2014 Women of Color VIDA Count, we consulted with a number of people, including the social psychologist, Ashaki Jackson, to help develop the survey that would allow people to self identify race. We are not qualified to determine and assign race to any writer of the more than 2,000 in the 12 publications we have traditionally counted — the recent example of Rashida Jones being publicly identified by an interviewer as a white woman is one example of why. We felt that to impose our own definitions of racial identity onto others would lead to a process full of misunderstanding and erasure, and, in a way, might even serve to fortify the very power systems we hope to call into question. So we designed the survey and began reaching out to writers online.”

This great statement from VIDA highlights Danielle’s points, while also pointing out some of the problems we run into while tracking—reaching out to writers isn’t necessarily an option for every reader, every writer or every book.

So, am I planning to stop using my spreadsheet? No, I like data way too much to give it up. But I do think I’ll be making some changes. Beyond that, I don’t have a clear answer…I’m just glad to be thinking. And something tells me that a willingness to rethink is a sign I’m headed in the right direction, statistics or not.

  • Every year i debate about tracking my reading, precisely because i can’t find a methodology that really works. Sometimes it seems like if i read 100 books in a year, then i need 100 different categories to describe them! On the other hand, tracking seems to be a good short hand way of analyzing one’s reading. It’s not without it’s problems, but at least it means the issues are being thought about.

    • I definitely find value in tracking what I read, especially broken down pretty deeply, but that’s just something I like to do and I totally understand how it can overwhelm others. Ideally, I’d be able to take the VIDA approach and know how authors self-identify, but since that’s not necessarily possible I’m starting think race/gender may just be something I consider when I pick up books, but don’t track. We’ll see.

  • I’ve always found it terribly ironic when people singing the praises of LGBTQ books still use binary gender identities. For personal tracking, I don’t think it matters much if you use the simple male/female divide, but it does become problematic when we start to attach too much meaning to it.

    • I love this point, Celine!

    • I agree with @lovelybookshelf:disqus that this is a great point. Numbers that are private reminders are different from numbers we publish, even if it’s just on a blog.

    • I think, for the sake of tracking, I’m OK with this for now, simply because I’m not sure of a better way to represent gender in my tracking and because with women still underrepresented in the publishing world (this year’s VIDA survey, eg), I think this is a category worth tracking. I recognize that gender could be viewed as a continuum or something even more complex and that the binary way we view it, especially with all the interests, roles and qualities we attach to specific genders, is stupidly limiting, but I’m just not sure how to convert that belief into numbers! Nor do I think it’s feasible to find out how every author I read thinks of themselves, which is really what matters.

  • Thanks for raising this issue. I haven’t read the original article yet. It seems like the common tracking (looking at only race and gender) mirrors our civil rights laws, which have yet to fully encompass LGBTQQ protection at the federal level and in most states and localities (we often have to argue that anti-gay discrimination is based on gender stereotypes just to get it covered by anti-discrimination laws).

    Anyway, I agree that it’s important to remember that there are many forms of diversity.

    • Ugh, we’ve had some awful discrimination laws trying to work their way through our General Assembly here in VA, and it’s easy to forget how unprotected those rights are.

  • Beth

    Thanks for sharing, Shannon! Your post is really interesting, and so is OneSmallPaw’s. This is something that people clearly aren’t thinking about enough. I liked the way she talks about the graphs as “humble brags,” and especially when she said “The graph is representative of more than just a way to measure how your reading differs over time. It is yet another way in which white, liberal guilt manifests itself.” That especially made me stop and think. I loosely keep track of the diversity of my reading because I don’t want to become complacent about it. I don’t make graphs, though I do see their appeal. At the same time, however, I can see why people simplify the certain aspects of their tracking (like gender and race)–not intending to in any way define the author’s personal identity. That being said, I also agree with what Celine said–this is fine for personal tracking, but it can become an issue if you put too much stock into these categories and your use of them.

    • Agreed on all accounts! Keeping track of diversity has always been about not being complacent for me, too. So, I’m starting to think maybe it doesn’t need to be shared at all? Or it just needs to be something I note as I’m planning my reading or putting together lists. I’m not quite sure what the best way is to go about it, but I feel like reading Danielle’s post made me more aware.

      • I’ll always be sharing mine because I love stats! I have so much fun seeing what other people have been reading, whether that means reading in a way that is diverse for them or just seeing where they get their books or what genre they pick up. Knowledge is power! Plus I love the idea of publishers seeing our diverse reading going up and hopefully factoring that in when they choose what and who to publish :)

  • Mm hmm! Yes! I’m nodding along over here.

    I haven’t written on this topic because those of you that do are doing such a great job of saying what is in my head. Watching book bloggers hash this out in posts, on Twitter, etc., has been fascinating. I’m rethinking how I look at gender, about my own search for diverse reading material, about how I’m sometimes smug in my “I’m doing what I can” attitude.

    Great stuff here, Shannon. Thanks for always making me think.

    • Twitter has been both fascinating and…a mess. Sometimes it just goes in circles and people don’t seem to listen. But I’m glad it’s being brought up…and I think many of us are on the right track and pretty capable of doing the right thing, even if we’re not recording it.

  • Great points! I agree with (well, everything) but more notably re: “assigning” a specific racial identity to an author simply by looking at a picture, or doing some surface level read of a wiki page in order to “categorize.” I loosely track some reading statistics for my personal use only, and struggled with this even before some of these discussions have come into the more public eye as of late. I think talking about these things, although maybe uncomfortable for some, is really important, and this is another good step in that line of thinking. Like you said – happy to be thinking, over here. :)

    • Yeah, I think I’ll always continue to track my reading in general, but I’m not sure where I’m headed with tracking authors. It may end up being something I check in on once in a while with a quick count, but not something I regularly record or share.

  • Anita LeBeau

    I have resisted jumping on any bandwagon or platform for Reading Diversely etc. I do see the need, I do see how never getting out of ones own socioeconomic race and gender mix can be dulling and ignorant. What I lack is the desire to track and in some way prove I’m diverse in what I read. I don’t want to be flag waving and saying, look at me, I’m all about diverse authors, for me it would be reading more books by men and anyone of color. Part of me just wants to read, what I want, topics I’m drawn to.
    This year I stopped having reading “goal” I had used the goodreads projection and then been dismayed when I got behind. Who needs that? Not I.
    Wishing you luck in your reading endeavors…this topic makes me think, also good, but wears me out…ha ha.

    • I’m not sure I want to call reading diversely a bandwagon, since it’s something that’s actually taken root in my reading and I have no desire to change that. I think it’s possible to read from topics you’re drawn to and still have a diverse reading experience…it just takes a little more work, but you’re right, we don’t necessarily need to wave flags over doing so.

  • Hmmm, stats can be tricky. And tracking is pretty subjective. Maybe I’m overthinking things but this seems like a whole lotta trouble when you *know* you’re open to reading diversely already?

    • Yeah, that’s what I’m starting to think. I like the work of tracking most things, but for diversity…if I know I’m doing well now and I see the tracking as problematic, maybe it’s best not to do it.

  • Oh man, this is super interesting and is making me rethink a lot of stuff. The comments here too. I definitely don’t want to be categorizing people without their input. That’s just a different manifestation of the same problem, though obviously less extreme/harmful. But still not something that should really happen. I don’t know. I don’t like obsess over my numbers or “flag-wave,” I just try to notice when I’m purchasing books or visiting the library if I’ve got a bunch of white dudes in my arms or being displayed/sold to me prominently.

    • A manifestation of the same problem is pretty spot on…and I think that’s what I didn’t see before. I don’t want to contribute to that. Tracking did help me notice what I was doing at first, but you’re right…my actual habits have been much more helpful in tracking lately.

  • This is such a great post. I talked about this a few months ago with my boyfriend, when I started using the spreadsheet you’re also using. Especially the ‘person of color’ part was really… weird, so I must say I’m not using that one, because I’m finding it offensive: plus, what is a person of color really? Isn’t white a color too? I do like reading books published in different continents though, because I do think (and am experiencing) that pov’s differ greatly from pov’s we have, though I understand that counting in continents maybe isn’t the best way to to it.

    • Danielle addressed the use of PoC in her post really well, “The term, ‘People of Color,’ or POC, can be incredibly powerful when used in the right context and with full comprehension. However, when this term is used in communities that still center whiteness, it becomes just another way to point out the non-whites.” And that’s how I think it was misused in my spreadsheet…it was a term for someone non-white instead having deeper meaning.

      • I can see where this could easily become a way of “othering” non-whites, especially when we as bloggers often have to figure out whether or not an author fits in this category. Doing so based on their appearance seems very wrong to me. However, I also agree that this can be a powerful and important term. In fact, for me, its use simply to mean non-white is helpful because it means “not like me in some way” which is pretty much how I define diversity in my reading. Whether someone is not white, super religious, identifies as LGBTQ+, isn’t American, doesn’t speak English, is an immigrant… anything that might make someone different from me and might make their life experience different from my own is something I want to see represented in my reading so I can learn about the way different people experience the world.

        • I totally agree and I want to see all of those differences represented in my reading, too…and I think it’s possible to truly have all of those differences represented without feeling it necessary to keep track of them in a single category. I think Danielle’s post just really shook something in me that made me realize how awful it would feel to see myself improperly represented that way…especially when it was meant to be helpful.

          • That’s a good point. Do you think this is something that’s only likely to bother individual authors if you miscategorize them relative to how they self-identify? Or are you thinking more like using a gender binary for LGBTQ individuals or using POC as a catch-all category just bothering everyone who doesn’t like the simplifying categories you chose? If the first, this isn’t an issue for me since I only share summary stats. If the second though, this seems like a good argument for just classifying things you think are diverse to you or not because it really isn’t reasonable to try to figure out how every author self-identifies. At the same time, is that bad? Is it erasing important differences by just lumping everything diverse together as well? I find it hard to approach this topic as someone who doesn’t fit any of the typical “diverse”, underrepresented categories (aside from being a woman) without worrying about offending someone. I think it’s good we’re thinking about it more though.

          • It’s a little bit of both, so the more I think about it I think the best way for me to approach it will be to eliminate publicly sharing my diversity statistics. I don’t think the publishing industry is looking at our one stat blog post for a measure of diverse reading as much as how we vote with our dollars and regular reviews. Not sharing seems like the least problematic way for me to go about it right now, so it’s what I’m leaning toward.

  • Guest

    Although I try to read diversely, I’ve
    always been uncomfortable with stats about it, especially with the notion of
    POC authors. For instance, it never crossed my mind to think of Gabriel Garcia
    Marquez as a POC, although apparently that’s the norm. Also, reading LGBTQ+ authors is not the same as reading
    books about LGBTQ+ life. So is it still reading diversely if
    you read LGBTQ+ authors who write about straight,
    middle-class white Western people? If the point of reading diversely is to support authors that might
    usually be discriminated, then yes, but in that case Gabriel Garcia Marquez was far from being discriminated in
    his country. If the point is to know other cultures, perspectives and life-styles, then the lines become really blurry. Too much essentialism :) This debate has been super interesting!

  • Alex (Sleepless Reader)

    Although I try to read diversely, I’ve always been uncomfortable with stats about it, especially with the notion of POC authors. For instance, it never crossed my mind to think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez as a POC, although apparently that’s the norm. Also, reading LGBTQ+ authors is not the same as reading books about LGBTQ+ life. So is it still reading diversely if you read LGBTQ+ authors who write about straight, middle-class white Western people? If the point of reading diversely is to support authors that might usually be discriminated, then yes, but in that case Gabriel Garcia Marquez was far from being discriminated in his country. If the point is to know other cultures, perspectives and life-styles, then the lines become really blurry. Too much essentialism :) This debate has been super interesting!!

    • There are definitely deep gray areas, and I think the thing that’s difficult is not knowing how authors self-identify. If that was possible across the board, it would make things much clearer.

  • I have tremendously conflicted feelings about this. In part, it’s because I use tracking spreadsheets for EVERYTHING: pretty much every goal I ever set for myself is being tracked in a spreadsheet somewhere. So when Danielle asks in her follow-up post “How do you hold yourself accountable with everything else?”, the answer for me is TRACKING SPREADSHEETS ALWAYS. When I have numbers or pie charts to look at, readily available, I’m just more likely to do the thing I want myself to get in the habit of doing.

    I also think that the more people say “diversity in books, diversity in books, diversity in books,” the more it becomes a cultural norm, and the more it becomes old-fashioned and embarrassing to read just books by white straight cisgendered Americans. The default to “what we’ve always published/reviewed/read” is easy to maintain if you’re not thinking about it, but if there are a lot of people saying “think about this thing, think about this thing, do it, do it,” then that nudges — I HOPE that nudges — others in the direction of mindfulness about that thing.

    I really appreciate what she’s saying about erasing intersections, though, and it’s something I’m going to think more about.

    • Yep, I agree with you on everything! I’m a huge spreadsheet person, so I really CAN’T not track everything else about my books…but the intersection thing is what really stood out to me in the post.

      I don’t want people to walk away from this thinking I’m calling diverse reading a trend or a bandwagon, because I totally agree that shouting about it and pushing for it (my librarians probably HATE me for the lists I throw into the system) is ridiculously important.

      But I feel that she’s absolutely right about categories, especially when it comes to how we track genre compared to *people*…it just feels so off…and like something I need to change.

      • Yeah, I track by the racial categories in the US census, which I know is also not perfect, particularly since I’m identifying the races myself based on what I can find out (though I do make an effort to discover how the authors identify themselves). So I track roughly the same number of ethnicities as genres, I think — my genre breakdowns aren’t that granular.

        Another thing I thought of — and this doesn’t speak to Danielle’s post, exactly, because I’m not in the BookTuber community and I don’t know what goes on there — but in the book blogger community, at least, the diverse reading goals tracking seems like a much smaller part of the engagement than the posts about books are. I mean I think what I value so much about bloggers who read diversely is that when they then write about what they’re reading, the posts engage with the multilayered identities that the books portray. And that’s what makes me want to pick up the book — the nuances of how the authors are writing about race/gender/sexuality/nationality/disability, not the simple fact of the authors’ demographics.

  • This is really interesting, and I’ve been thinking it over since I first read your post (and Danielle’s) yesterday. She hits the nail on the head on the erasure of intersectionality, which is something I’ve always felt uncomfortable with in my own spreadsheet but never quite managed to articulate clearly.

    I hadn’t been thinking along these lines when I did this, but this year, I added a “We Need Diverse Books” column to my own reading stats; basically it’s just a Y/N for whether a book falls into a category of diversity, whether that be author race/gender/sexuality. That has felt slightly less binary than assigning an author race or gender, because it doesn’t require that I generate a label on behalf of an author, simply that I look at whether an author’s work is increasing the diversity of PoVs in publishing, and acknowledging that it is. It’s not perfect, but I may trend in that direction in light of Danielle’s arguments. But like you said, I’m not sure I know a clear answer–it’s something I see myself continuing to think on.

    • Oh, I like that, Kerry…especially the idea of increasing the diversity of PoV in publishing as the qualifier. That gives me something else to think about – thank you!

    • This is more or less my approach, too. I also have a column for nationality, to make sure I’m not only reading books by Americans, but then I run into the issue of assigning a nationality to an author who was born in Nigeria but moved to the US at the age of 4.

  • Oooooh I like the pretty new look! I cringe to think how “new” it might be…

    Anyway, this is something that has been on my mind ever since the big push amongst book bloggers over the past year to read more diversely. I did take a look at my numbers over the past couple of years, but then I struggled on who to count as a POC (I believe we talked about this on twitter at least once). Ultimately I created a category in my tracking tool called “Diversiverse” (term coined by Aarti) to track anything that feels diverse to me (still not clear on whether a translated book from a Turkish author might count as something written by poc, for example). Sexuality and gender is a whole other topic…though related.

    Though I think the bottom line, even if we don’t have answers, is to be aware! Great post Shannon.

    • It sounds like you’re taking an approach similar to @ofabookworm:disqus’s! Definitely liking that out of all the options I’ve been pondering.

  • Elizabeth Bogardus

    I think this is why I don’t keep diversity stats. There are so many categories to track. When I first thought about reading more diversely I thought I should expand my horizons genre-wise and try new authors. And when I pick a book by a new-to-me author, I don’t even think about that person’s gender,race, or sexuality. My shallowness comes in choosing books by cover art.

    • I still want to be careful about what I choose to read, since reading diversely is important to me, but I think there might need to be a different way to keep track of it (if I keep track of it at all).

  • I think maybe the real issue is indicating to the publishing industry that we WANT to read diverse books from authors of all sorts. And we want those to be promoted by the industry, so that the general reading public can experience them. I know that is what’s at the heart of campaigns like We Need Diverse Books. I’m not a stats person myself, I must admit . . . so I’m never going to track my books in this way. But that doesn’t mean I don’t find the topic important. So, for those who’ve thought more about this issue than I have, what else we could do to show our interest in diverse books to the publishers?

    • I agree. This is what’s important for me, too, more than anything. I’m sure that it’s through our dollars (either in actual purchases or library borrows) and shares.

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