Recently, I completed my listen of the audiobook for Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. Gawande’s work has been on my list for years. Thanks to my 2016 reading challenge of reading exclusively non-white* authors, I finally made my way to him.
The book is a moving and important read, making a compelling argument for bringing humanity back to the process of dying. As a former believer, grappling with my mortality is something I’ve done deliberately and conscientiously. As someone who would be paralyzed were it not for modern surgical techniques, I am eager to balance my enthusiasm for scientific advances with a reality check about the inherent ultimate frailty of the human body. As the current caretaker to a disabled spouse, the more dire side of the modern, medicalized system of illness and death is never far from my mind.
That Gawande is Indian shouldn’t matter in a book about the American medical system, right? Any good doctor with writing chops could have produced as excellent a work as Being Mortal, theoretically speaking. Yet it is not so.
When I first announced my intention to do a reading challenge, I was met with reactions that included anger and genuine confusion. I was expecting the former, since I saw what had happened to K. Tempest Bradford. The latter, however, led to a bit of a feedback cycle since I was rather befuddled by it at first. Why didn’t detractors claiming that race didn’t matter with authors see why it did?
It hit me a little late that I was expecting a default catered-to audience to recognize their positioning in society. White men don’t realize that most books are written for, if not always by, people with their perspective. Many books are written in a way that treats and depicts women in a way that reads false and thoughtlessly disregards any concerns not shared by people from WASP backgrounds (I’m looking at you, Michael Pollan).
No such thoughtlessness appears in Gawande’s work. Indeed, his Indian heritage lends him a unique perspective on aging and elder care. By contrasting the way in which his Indian grandfather led the last few decades of his life to the way in which his white wife’s grandmother led hers, he presents insights that neither glamorize nor demonize. Due to his personal experience with both cultures, he avoids the trap of romanticizing India and other developing nations to the point of calcification, consciously pointing out that societies everywhere are moving to a more Western-style medicalized style of aging and dying. His thoughtfulness on the matter of cultural change in how we treat mortality is far less likely to have existed in someone without his hyphen-American background.
For all his cultural depth, however, Gawande does fail on one front. I was jarred out of my listening to the section on nursing homes by his reaction to one of the ways in which residents rebel against institutionalization. One of them is by hoarding food, usually desserts, and surreptitiously eating it when the resident wishes rather than during mealtime. Gawande expresses surprise and amazement at the very notion that eating a cookie could be a significantly rebellious act.
I had to pause the audiobook and inhale, then exhale, as I let my thoughts run: Actually, Atul Gawande, I am perfectly capable of imagining how the resident of that nursing home feels. Any fat person, especially a femme one, could have told you that eating such a demonized food item as a sugary white-flour baked good can be one hell of a rebellious act — exponentially so if done in public.
I resumed my listening reminded of both why reading challenges are so important and how spoiled I’d become on the matter of gender. Nothing like this had happened to me last year, when I read exclusively non-male authors. I had become accustomed to a lack of gender perspective fails in my reading. That it took me a whole eight books to encounter a gender fail for the first time in my year of reading male authors again was a stark reminder of why I continue to do reading challenges and why I will continue to favor authors with wide-ranging, inclusive perspectives.
Even if, occasionally, I hit upon one who is good on one front but not another, it would be far less often than it would have been had I continued in my old reading habits. Honestly, I could really get used to this. Perhaps, in this roundabout way, I’m coming to understand why catered-to populations avoid reading books that they suspect might not be catering to them. It is rather nice to feel like the author of a work writes as though people like me exist.
* I am indeed painfully aware that there are a million ways to define this term, ahistorical ways to apply the term, and much to consider in order to improve my criteria to expand the range of authors I consume. However, just because there are valid criticisms of my challenge and ways to better my scope as a reader doesn’t mean that I should abandon a perhaps-imperfect challenge. My goal is not to read every kind of author ever, merely to do better by even some small measure.
Main Image by GlennFleishman