The Uncomfortable Questions My Bookshelf Is Raising
Can you judge a person by their bookshelf?
Here is a list of the last few books I have read lately.
These are books by Michael Pollan, Cal Newport, Andrew Grove, Adam Smith, Seneca, Neil Gaiman, Stephen Hawking, John McPhee, Perumal Murugan, Ed Catmull, Eric Schmidt, Scott Adams, Anthony Bourdain, Will Durant, Charles Darwin, Keigo Higashino, John Fowles and more.
Notice anything in particular? How did I never notice this?
No women authors.
Now I do believe in equality and the right to an opportunity for every deserved soul. But how did I end up favoring these books? Not one author crossed the list?
Women and Fiction
When asked to speak at Cambridge in 1928 about ‘Women and Fiction,’ Virginia Woolf famously said: ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’
Every decade from there on has seen a favorable change towards the money and a room, which is visible in the NYT Bestseller list for fiction.
The period between 1950s to 1970s saw roughly 25% of women representation in the NYT Bestseller list.
The 1980s were an exception with only one female writer, Danielle Steel, in the list. A sudden surge in Horror, sci-fi, and mystery was captured by Stephen King, Dick Francis, Ron Hubbard, that decade.
The 1990s was the defining shift when it came to women and fiction. Women bestsellers broke out of the ‘Romance’ genre and started dominating ‘Suspense’ and ‘Mystery.’ (Source)
Got to give it to Virginia Woolf for it indeed turned out that women and fiction blossomed when money and a room became more predictable.
Women are writing more. They are hitting the bestseller lists more. Great.
What’s in a Name?
In a groundbreaking study of more than two million books published in North America between 2002 and 2012, scholars found that books by women authors are priced 45% less than those of their male counterparts.
This throws up two veiled discriminations that the publishers are putting up for women.
- Fewer female authors published than male
- The genres which were traditionally dominated by women are being assigned lesser value by publishers.
Women and Non-fiction
Okay, let me rephrase this as business and management books. This bears an even deserted look in the gender ratio of my books.
Even if we take the genre in full — according to Guardian’s The 100 best nonfiction books of all time: the full list, women have authored just 17 out of the 100 books.
With more women breaking the ceiling and reaching higher positions, this hopefully would change in the coming time.
Conscious and Unconscious Choices
We make over 35,000 choices a day, which is about 2000 an hour and 2 every second. Some are conscious and others unconscious.
Over a period of time, we develop mental models that help us in decision making. A brain is a mean machine that stores information it deems necessary for future use.
There is another implication of this storage.
It helps us fill-in details. In a study published Sunday in Nature Neuroscience, researchers using brain scanners could predict people’s decisions seven seconds before the test subjects were even aware of making them.
Here Is What It Means
You think ‘you’ are making a decision but on the contrary, your brain has already made it by filling in with details of past memory and patterns.
How much do you think the brain fills in? How in control are you?
Only about 40% of what we believe we “see” comes in through our eyes. The rest is filled in by the brain. A whopping 60% of decisions are made by the brain for you.
If 95% of titles in my bookshelf are written by men, then is it possible that there is a dangerous message being imprinted inside my brain somewhere?
- Humans value what they pay for. By paying lesser for a book by a female author, the brain is imprinting that books by female authors should be cheap-er. In turn, signaling that book by male authors should command a premium.
- Imagine the imprint it puts on young people who have taken up to read the top 100 fiction and non-fiction books? It reinforces the inequality of sexes in their minds.
- Pair this with other reinforcements working in our head — with voice assistants aimed to replicate the ‘perfect assistant.’
And I am not alone. If I am buying books with this pattern, then a lot of people are. I am sure. 100%.
A person’s library is their literary playlist. If I called the authors of this playlist to a cocktail party, then it would be a mega sausage fest.
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