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  • Writer's pictureCaroline

Review: Decolonize your Bookshelf

This is the Canon: Decolonize your Bookshelf in 50 Books, by Deirdre Osborne, Joan Anim-Addo, and Kadija Sesay


Published 2021

'Decolonizing the bookshelf' is about redefining the 'canon': the books we consider to be 'essential reading' in the Western world, and therefore those that repeatedly appear on school/university reading lists and those pesky '100 books you must read before you die' articles, to the exclusion of more diverse perspectives. Without demeaning the value of any of those individual pieces of literature (though from a personal POV, I have found many of these classics to be deeply disappointing), the 'canon' as a whole is one that is overwhelming representative of white, colonial societies (and often male, heterosexual, able-bodied etc).

'This is the Canon' challenges us to reconsider this narrow window into literature, not seeking to replace but to broaden and to expand (the authors do note here that a more accurate title for the collection may have been 'This is a Canon'). Encouragely, Anim-Addo (Professor of Caribbean Writing and Culture at Goldsmiths), states that the demand is increasingly there from the younger generation: her students are repeatedly asking for diversity in their literature study; but universities often still lag behind in the breadth literature they champion.

In this book, the authors introduce a curated list of 50 books representing the very best in international writing from outside the colonial canon, including indigenous writers and writers from the diaspora. Here they note that often an argument against a push for more diverse literature 'canon' is that the perceived standards of writing will decrease. This is clearly not the case. The authors have taken care to select books of great influence, creativity and literary and cultural significance, most of which have been bestowed multiple awards and prizes [so far, all of the books I have read from the list have been fantastic].

Each recommendation is offered up alongside a synopsis, short publishing history and author bio, as well as suggestions for further reading with similar themes. Plenty of the recommended books were not new to me, and will likely be familiar to many other readers (some of which are pictured above), but I still appreciated the authors' insight and analysis of these. Some of the other 50 were however books/authors I have not come across previously, and I particularly liked the 'If you liked this, then try...' recommendations; there were lots of completely 'new to me' books here that I will be seeking out. Although there is no shortage of such recommendations to be found online and on social media, I find there to be something joyful in reading a book about books, and I really enjoyed dipping in and out of this collection a few pages at a time. The book itself almost felt like essential reading and part of a new canon for my own 'Read the World' journey, and along the way, I found some interesting new suggestions for my own resources list!

Unfortunately, I did find that the opening introduction read very academically; it left me a little more unsure of the target audience, with the title suggesting this is a book for a reader who is just beginning the process of 'decolonizing' but the introduction signalling something less universally accessible. Perhaps this is due to the two of the three authors' backgrounds coming from the university field; while they articulate some really valid points on writing as activism and why we should all welcome diversity in literature, I worry the style here may be off-putting for some, despite the rest of the book being a more straightforward read. I also feel the authors could have spent less time going into the finer plot details of each recommendation at times, and focused more heavily on key themes and what makes these books so important. With some of the plots described, we are introduced to so many characters in relatively few pages that it can feel confusing without the wider context of the novel, and snappier summaries may have helped better 'sell' each book. However, I think the list of books would still be a fantastic start for anyone beginning their journey of reading more diversely, and I would encourage others to pick it up as a guide they can keep referring back to, if not a book to sit and read from cover to cover.


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