Babel, Booktok, and Representation

Agni Gupta (’24) discusses the implications of Booktok’s white bias. “The only books being recommended are by white authors, leaving no room for authors of color to exist alongside them.”

I met Ramiz Rafi Mirza (Ramy) three weeks ago, sewn into the pages of Babel by R.F. Kuang, a gift from my parents who wanted nothing more than for me to read a book that wasn’t associated with Tolkien. Of course, Ramy is utterly fictional and will definitely stay that way for eternity. Despite this, I couldn’t help but feel kinship, despite us hailing from places over a thousand miles apart, I suppose we shared similar ideas of change. Ramy’s story is told beside Robin Swift, a boy ripped from his home, Babel is the story of oppression and revolution, a different story than what is presented by Booktok.

Booktok is a place I personally do not frequent, mostly due to my inability to finish a book before distracting myself with countless others — even though I do get the gossip, recommendations, and drama rounds every once in a while —  making me an expert on booktok happenings (it doesn’t, I’m nowhere close to knowing everything about the platform). In my occasional encounters with booktok, I’ve seen the same couple of patterns: The “best book ever”, riddled with bigotry and stereotypes, the same story that Pride and Prejudice told over a century ago, and the love story where every love interest looks the same except one is blond and the other is “tall, dark, and handsome.” What does that even mean? All three of these patterns are kind of generic but is there really anything wrong with them? (Except for the first one, that’s an issue and a half.)

There is something wrong with the white-centric view that booktok has. The only books being recommended are by white authors, leaving no room for authors of color to exist alongside them. Now I’m not saying that you need to stop recommending books by white authors, or that you should only read works by authors of color. I’m saying that there should already be space for them, instead of having to slowly carve a space adjacent to the preexisting one because new spaces are easily overlooked. You need to be on the same level to be seen, and the only way to do that is equal opportunity.

There is an impact left by booktok that extends outward from the social media bubble. I went to Barnes and Nobles, hoping to find something that would catch my attention (I found The Last Jedi but written as a Shakespearian play). I did happen to notice that half of the main displays were dedicated to booktok’s most popular books like Song of Achilles, It Ends With Us and, Throne of Glass. This is good and all, like giving platforms for new books for people to read is great but with the racial bias thrown in, a bunch of white writers will get six-figure deals while authors of color don’t, all because a lot of white people refuse to read books with main characters who aren’t white (this is just something I’ve noticed, not an all-encompassing fact).

While most of these issues are not things easily changed, but one step is through some book recs! I’ve brought together some of the new books I got off the Washington Post’s 9 Best Sci Fi/Fantasy Novels of 2022 list, as well as others from friends and past reads.  

Babel by R.F. Kuang (yes yes I know I’m obsessed with it) Is the story of a young Robin Swift who was orphaned by a cholera epidemic in Canton then whisked away by a cold English professor to study languages for the British Crown. 

The Cartographers by Peng Shepard is the story of Nell Young who discovers a family secret in the wake of her father’s death.

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, the story is set in a mythical world called Orïsha, a West African-inspired civilization. The main character, Zélie, is a Maji, a group of magic users targeted by the current King. Zélie is given the chance to save the Maji from an impending doom with the help of her brother and a princess.
I’m also adding a TV show rec for fun, Willow (2022) on Disney+ has an amazing cast of characters. Between ones returning from the 1988 film and new ones, Willow blends Medieval and Modern through language and clothing, making a great experience. The series follows Princess Kit Tanthalos on her quest to stop the Crone and rescue her brother. Accompanied by her closest “friend”, her to-be husband, a flirty former outlaw, a legendary wizard and her brother’s girlfriend. Together they venture to the edge of the world, and I can’t say anything else without spoiling stuff so check it out!

The War of Paper and Digital

Michelle McGuinty (’24) outlines the pros and cons of digital versus print books. She asks, “Which is better,” inviting readers to draw their own conclusions.

1993—the longest war in known history was born, e-books as the match. They’re classic. They’re modern. They’re reliable. They’re accessible. They hold history. They made history.

Digital books were first created in 1971 but weren’t sold until 1993. Long after the estimated start of words on parchment around 500 BC. But which is better has always been the question.

E-books started just like digital books but grew with the explosion of the internet. There are now countless platforms to use, from professional and peer-edited to unedited and written by a young student. Digital books have an endless variety, customizations galore, and settings for a wide range of ability. Not only that, but without hundreds of paper pages, it’s lighter and better for the environment.

On the other hand, physical books are just that—physical. They can be signed, have more designs, and hold a higher value. Paper books also have to go through the publication process, meaning they are fully edited and finished pieces. Lastly, many people prefer physical books because of the feeling they get from the smell, the turning of the pages, the bookmarks, the aesthetic overall.

When it comes to the question: which is better? The answer lies with the reader. Both media types hold mystical tales that come to life in your mind, and any way you want to immerse yourself—is valid.

Shakespeare Is So Last Season

Bella Simonte (’23) advocates for an updated approach to literature study in English classes. “Inaccessible language and misogynistic views are so last season. Teaching kids how to be contributing members of society is the new hot trend.”

Duels, poisoning your step-son, and marrying your mother are all wildly unrealistic tales told in Shakespeare’s plays. Made of too much confusing language, misogynistic themes, and not enough racial or cultural diversity, Shakespeare has passed its expiration date. 

Regular texts can be taxing enough on people with learning comprehension disabilities. When dead language and syntax like ones commonly found in Shakespeare get added in, it makes reading and processing the information much harder. In most classrooms, roles are assigned to students, forcing them to read each soliloquy aloud in front of the class. Reading for some is hard enough, let alone having to do it in a room full of people. 

Contrary to the 1500s, Shakespeare’s plot lines are no longer relevant nor politically correct. In books like Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, women are treated as ownable, easily manipulated pieces in someone else’s grand scheme. English teachers prefacing the book with, “now this was made in a time where this was commonplace,” doesn’t make the story any less sexist or any more normalized. 

Some teachers would argue schools teach Shakespeare because of its key themes. However, these plot lines aren’t relatable to a modern day audience and shouldn’t be what schools focus on teaching their youth. Kids should be learning about current issues like racism, sexism, government power, wealth inequality, and other cultures. Shakespearean plays were made to be entertainment, not course material. Whatever themes and lessons that were applicable in the 1500s, are definitely not applicable now. 

Some better alternatives would be Just Mercy, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, and Into the Wild. Each book has lessons that teach readers how to better understand people who are different from them by diving into race, abilities, and economic status. 

Technology, architecture, and cars are evolving with a world of ever changing dynamics, as should our school curriculum. Inaccessible language and misogynistic views are so last season. Teaching kids how to be contributing members of society is the new hot trend.