My Landscape of Literature : DeuxUsing data to unlock my history of reading
If you've come directly to this article, I recommend you read Part 1 first, so it makes your journey on Part 2 a whole lot better. I've always loved reading so I wrote the first part in August last year trying to decode my entire literary history. It was eye opening and fascinating, because not only did I have a new way of visualising what I've read, but also a new perspective into my interests and biases. I now had the ability to ask questions of myself and get answers. Some answers I asked in Part 1, and a few more in Part 2! Let's begin.
Like I mentioned in Part 1, this does not include comics except graphic novels, so if you’d like to read about that, I've written about my favourite comics and a complete timeline of DC comics.
While Part 1 of my article scratches the surface of my landscape of literature, I was keen to dive deeper and find answers to some more questions. One of the first things I was curious to understand was where were my books coming from? Where do the people writing them come from?
I already knew that I’ve read authors from a very few countries but I wasn’t expecting that number to be as meagre as 11! I have, to my shock, read only 7 books by authors from India! This means I’ve mainly read them through comics like Tinkle, Amar Chitra Katha, etc. instead of novels. This was the first gap I discovered in my reading history.
I further realised that I have an obvious & massive bias towards British and American authors with them contributing to 84% of everything I've read. But even from this sky-high contribution, I was slightly taken aback to find that American authors overtook the British ones, when I thought it would be vice-versa. This also threw some light on the fact that I have read very few authors beyond American/British origins, leading me to my next set of questions.
Where are the stories themselves set in? And how reflective are they of the cultural fabric of these countries? There’s a Neil Gaiman book set in India, for example. I may have read authors from a very few countries but I decided to map countries I’ve visited through these stories.
I’ve evidently covered more countries this way than by author origins, although not by much. Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s Shadow of the Wind is set completely in Barcelona, Keigo Higashino’s wildly engaging Devotion of Suspect X is set in Tokyo, and Maus is set in Poland and Germany. Very interestingly, "Sea" is also a very popular location with the books I’ve read - Life of Pi, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Moby Dick to name a few!
The downside is that I’ve also accounted for countries in thriller books like Da Vinci Code. It covers multiple countries but doesn’t tell us anything about the culture of that country at all.
The above data uncovers some very notable insights. Out of all the books I've read that are set in India, only half of them are actually written by authors from India. Astonishingly, NONE of the 6 books I've read that are set in Italy, have been written by an Italian author, but over 80% of them are written by authors from America. This made me re-visit my data and I realised that almost half the books written by authors from America aren't even set there. Are the authors of some of these books I've read even related to the culture or region they've written about?
This spells out the third gap in my reading pattern that I’d like to address: I’ve only read a handful of stories that truly imbibe the authentic culture of the place that they’re set in, or have been written by a native author.
After seeing both these data points I knew I needed to diversify my reading a lot more, and I now know how I’d want to shift my reading pattern. This skewed pattern also exists for films I watch, which led to me to my ATW Film Challenge so I extended a similar Around the World Challenge for Books.
I’d love to revisit the charts above once I’m through 30% of the challenge! At the end of 2020, I had completed 1% of my challenge by reading a book each from Mexico and Spain (both books surprisingly had the word “Shadow” in their title).
After I charted out my literature geography, I was curious to see how far back in time I’ve gone and if my reading has evolved from a time perspective. So I mapped all my books for when I read them versus when they were first published.
Hover over 2002 for example, and you’ll see that in 2002, I’ve read books published in 1952, 1956, 1960, 1992, and 2001 (the arcs going backwards). It also shows that books that were published in 2002, were read by me in 2004, 2007, and 2020 (arcs going forward). The higher the arcs, the farther back in time the book is.
My reading journey started in 1993 with 5 books that were published between 1870-1900 (Journey to Center of the Earth, Around World in 80 Days, Sherlock Holmes, etc.). This was also when my Iceland obsession kickstarted. I didn’t know I’d read a book from 1719!! (The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe). Looks like I started out reading a lot of classics (1997 seems like a very fascinating reading year!) and then gradually read books published closer to my reading year. Toward the end I started reading a few more old books and I have some classics lined up that I haven’t read yet, so should be interesting to see how this evolves!
Putting it all Together
The first time around, I combined my reading data into a single graph (parallel sets diagram) that painted the bigger picture of my literary landscape. But this time around, I've dissected the data into multiple variables, which puts my entire landscape of literature at your fingertips to explore!
On Y-Axis is the average rating for the book on Goodreads (starts at 3.2 for legibility), the X-Axis plots when I read the book. The size of the circles depicts the number of pages, and the colour is decided by the segment you choose: Pace, Gender (Author or Protagonist), Binding or Author Race. Go crazy!
Hardcover Paperback Ebook
Male Female Ensemble Non-Binary N/A
Pace & Size
This one’s super intriguing. So I start off with a lot of tiny books and then suddenly around 2000 I graduate to huge, slower books. Around 2003 I enter my “Dan Brown” style phase and binge on medium-sized fast-paced books. Later, I picked up Jonathan Stroud’s The Bartimaeus Trilogy (later to become a sequence) which was a very fresh take in the fantasy genre with Bartimaeus becoming one of my all-time favourite characters.
Quick mentions to Harlan Coben’s Just One Look (a fantastic thriller mystery that kicks off because someone saw an old photo), Neil Gaiman’s Stardust (romance, fantasy and a literal star woven into a book), Jeffrey Archer's A Prisoner of Birth (has one of the most satisfying climaxes I've read) and Jeffrey Deaver’s The Blue Nowhere (no other book will teach you more about privacy than this one).
There’s always been an epic fantasy undercurrent to my reading. Lord of The Rings, Harry Potter, and then A Song of Ice and Fire (popularised as Game of Thrones). I haven’t picked up any after that though the closest one to that is Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree (also involves dragons and strong female protagonists). My reading has also become a lot slower since 2012.
Sadly, this one pretty much turned up how I was expecting it to be. Very heavily prejudiced towards men and very few women. Even among the women it’s mainly just bestselling authors like Enid Blyton, JK Rowling, and Agatha Christie although that's not the case with male authors (does this mean the physical and digital storefronts have less opportunities to showcase non-male authors? Or does it mean there's a personal bias in the books I've picked up so far?). I did diversify a little in 2020, but I’m hoping my Around the World project really blows this one apart.
This one was very interesting. A little bit more balanced but still overwhelmingly male. I've read a lot of ensemble books as well, to my surprise (Secret Seven & Famous Five growing up and then Flipped, Station Eleven, Guillermo Del Toro's Strain trilogy). These include a lot of partnership style books too where the leads are a male-female pair. We also have non-binary here! These are leads who are all genders and none - think djinnis and physical manifestation of Dream, for example. For the amount of fantasy books I read, I'm astonished there's only been 3 of these so far.
We already knew this from the graph above, but visualising it as above clearly uncovers the absence of cultural representation of authors in my mix. It is also a reality check of the prejudice we’ve had culturally and through the publishing industry.
On a deeper dive, I realised that while through my childhood I’ve had a very heavy influence from British authors (JRR Tolkien, Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, JK Rowling, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie), that waned through my college years. I suspect it’s the same case with all 90s kids. As I moved through adulthood, American authors really came into the foray (Neil Gaiman, George RR Martin, Dan Brown, etc.). A noteworthy observation, although its correlation here is questionable, is that until 2007, all British authored books seem to have better overall ratings than American ones.
Nothing new here either. The only unexpected point was that I started reading eBooks a little earlier than I’d expected.
I’ve drawn two major conclusions from this part! I’ve started my Around the World Challenge for Reading to confront the gaps that currently exist in my reading habits. It’s a list of 204 regions across the world, including some that may not be countries but have completely different living experiences that should be heard. Please feel free to recommend some books across these regions.
I’m also in the process of setting up a real-time stats page that depicts my entire history of reading updated every single time I finish a book. I'm pretty excited about this and it should be ready soon!
You have made it to the end of Part 2, and it took us only a year! Thank you for tagging along for the journey. I hope that this inspires you to read more and confront your biases as well, making you a better, diverse reader. I still have a few more questions to answer so there may be a Part 3. This would mean that like all good stories, this might end in a trilogy. Until then, keep reading!