When Mark Zuckerberg announced last year that he was launching a book club, responses were cautiously optimistic. Because it’s arguable that Facebook deters deep reading -- it’s a huge distraction for most of the young population, and promotes the kind of multi-tasking that actually hurts our comprehension skills -- Zuck’s push to read full-length books rather than status after status seemed positive.
But, prolific readers wondered, which titles would he select?
Would he stick to the monolithic mantras swirling around Silicon Valley -- explorations of youthfulness, health food, business tactics, robotics, and people whose work ethics are robot-like? Or would the very young CEO use his book club as an opportunity to expand his own horizons, taking in insights from other nations, industries and genders? As it turned out, he explored all but the latter.
The 23 titles on Mark Zuckerberg’s book club list included a book written in 1377 by a man credited as being a father of modern sociology and a 2014 book by Henry Kissinger. His selections span centuries and continents, but only three of them were written by women.
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and On Immunity by Eula Biss are both exceptional books that were recognized in both literary communities and the respective communities that are involved with the themes of their books. Alexander’s book centers on race and the legal system, and Biss' confronts anti-vaccine proponents’ flimsy rationale. Another worthy book on the list, Portfolios of the Poor, was penned by four authors, one of whom was a woman. All three are excellent reads, and their inclusion on the list makes sense.
That the club’s picks include William James’ famous meditations on religion and Moisés Naím equally weighty contemporary tome The End of Power shows that Zuckerberg isn’t one to shy away from massive, universal themes. Many of his selections -- like a detailed history of Pixar and an unofficial sequel to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four -- were steeped in contemporary political issues too, indicating that the club is meant to be a comprehensive survey of perspectives and ideas. That such a thorough sampling should exclude the viewpoints of women is disappointing, and limiting.
Because Zuck’s book club list includes a perspective on race in America (only one, to be clear -- most picks are, as expected, sci-fi stalwarts and stranger-than-fiction insights into popular science and social science), it wouldn’t be unthinkable for him to include a book that directly discusses feminism. There are plenty to choose from. If we’re talking William James-caliber social thinkers who’ve stood the test of time, there’s Virginia Woolf or Simone de Beauvoir. For contemporary perspectives, Roxane Gay’s poignant Bad Feminist would do the trick.
But, let’s say Zuckerberg’s book club wants to work against the idea that reading groups are settings for discussing so-called women’s issues. That wouldn’t limit his selection of great nonfiction titles by women. The Meghan Daum-edited Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed may be a collection of essays about the decision to have children or to live a childless life, but it should be relevant to men, too -- it is 2016. Moreover, four of the five 2015 National Book Award nominees for nonfiction were written by women, including Martha Hodes’ Mourning Lincoln, which inadvertently explored our country’s changing relationship with our president, and If the Oceans Were Ink, a deep-dive into the Quran. Two years ago, the award was given to Katherine Boo for her coruscating Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a look at the hidden lives of Mumbai citizens and a heart-rending read.
It should go without saying -- but apparently doesn’t -- that plenty of women have written Iain M. Banks-levels of science-fiction books, but none were recognized by this book club, which included two works of fiction by men. Zuckerberg’s apparent interest in sociology would’ve been quenched by an Ursula K. le Guin story collection, or perhaps a title from Jo Walton’s timeless Just City series, which tackles mythology and social structures.
It could be that ignorance is to blame for the gender inequity in one of our country’s most influential leaders’ list of great books. But years of cringe-worthy, male-centric must-read articles have lead major outlets like Esquire to apologize for their error and amend their lists to include people of all genders and races.
We’ll patiently wait for Mark Zuckerberg’s book club to do the same; in the meantime, Emma Watson’s feminist reading list beckons.
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