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  • Gabby Womack

How To Read Now by Elaine Castillo

Updated: Jun 21




So much of this book resonated with me. Especially Castillo’s argument on reading as empathy building. Many of us raised in U.S. school systems with a steady diet of literature by white authors know we weren’t assigned those books for the purpose of building empathy for white folks. They were meant to be universal tales while books by and about non-white folks were deemed more niche or with the focus of specifically addressing race. 


This brings me to a part that I have conflicted thoughts on: positive representation. Castillo shares that she hates the idea of positive representation, “because when art gets made to check a box for positive representation, you feel it–you feel its intellectual limits...its flat affect where a complex emotional life is supposed to be.” She believes that the complicated nature of people doesn’t “matter to positive representation art.” While I agree that this is an issue, I do also think this take is kind of a sweeping generalization. My main issue is with the way that Castillo seems to use “positive representation” and “representation matters art” interchangeably. I wish that she defined each of those. In my opinion, representation is most powerful (for underrepresented groups) when it displays our complexities, our dreams, and our experiences. However, I still see value in “positive representation” for the opportunities to see ourselves as our own heroes, outside of the reality of our oppression. (Sometimes I just want to be the princess warrior in a made-up kingdom with magic and elves!) Don’t get me wrong, I’m completely aware of the ways in which this has led to films like The Green Book, and the whole “you’re one of the good ones” mentality. I just think that there’s a difference between “representation matters art” created by and for BIPOC and this same art created for white audiences. One example of a “representation matters” film that warmed me was Moonlight. It gave space to Black gay life in the South and allowed Black men to be depicted in a multitude of ways, including vulnerable. My hope is to see this conversation play out with more nuance and clarity.


Aside from this point, I found a lot of these essays to be empowering and incredibly insightful. The section on “The Limits of White Fantasy” is one of my favorites, I think. Despite the fact that I wasn’t familiar with about a third of the literary works that Castillo references and critiques, I still understood her critiques because she did a wonderful job of setting the scene and giving a brief overview of each piece. If you get to a part that you can’t relate to or aren’t familiar with the content she’s discussing, just keep reading. You will understand by the end.


Although How to Read Now is not meant to be an educational tome for white folks, Castillo often connects her critiques with observations of white supremacy, racial minorities as well as historical events, which I expect is pretty enlightening for many readers. Her works cited section is 19 pages long! This book was meant to push its readers to think more critically about our reading culture and it absolutely accomplished that for me.

Which is why How to Read Now by Elaine Castillo is one of my favorite books of 2024, thus far!



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