Book Club

Mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors

Grace Schutte

More stories from Grace Schutte

May 10, 2023

What started out as a random book thrift in Vancouver, Canada turned into one of my favorite reads of the year.

For the readers who have been following Book club these past few weeks, you might have noticed a theme. The vast majority promote the works of minority authors whose books contain POC characters as well as ones who identify as LGBT. 

There are many reasons behind this. The first is simple — these are phenomenal pieces of literature that I find down-right impeccable. Why wouldn’t I shout them from the mountain tops?

The second reason is part of a larger picture scholars are calling “mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors.” An idea created by Rudine Sims Bishop, professor at Ohio State University, Bishop first coined the term in the book “Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom,” published in 1990. 

While the theory was created with children’s books in mind — Bishop’s field of expertise — it was adapted into academia, where scholars apply it to the collective cis-gendered, heterosexual, angsty white male’s passion project: the literary canon.

Its mission is to identify the disparities surrounding the canon and popular literature; to explore the benefits of diverse perspectives; as well as to pull up a seat for minority authors who have yet to be heard and recognized.  

In her essay, Bishop said books can act as mirrors, transforming “human experience and (reflecting) it back on us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.” 

Up until recently, most characters found within books — from any genre — are white. The narrative is so homogenous that if race or minimal physical description is explicitly given, most readers assume the characters are white. It’s the default and isn’t questioned until they’re given reason to think otherwise. 

More often than not, POC readers are limited to following white American or European characters and their thoroughly white — colonial, imperial, and capitalist — lives. Ones they cannot relate to in the least. 

Mirrors refers to offering a diverse cast of characters ranging from a variety of ethnicities, cultures and religions so that readers may relate to the text. And just so we’re clear, that doesn’t mean making the best friend Black — we’re talking primary, main characters. 

Next is books are windows. Bishop said books “(offer) views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange.” 

I personally can attest to this. One of my favorite aspects of reading is when I get so invested, so immersed that I forget I’m reading at all. It’s as though I’m there or watching it play out before me like a movie; it truly is an out-of-body experience.

But Bishop uses the term “window” in a slightly different context. Yes, books are engaging and suck readers in like Tom Riddle’s diary in the first Harry Potter book, but the point she makes here is how books can give readers a glimpse into other cultures and ways of life. 

The final aspect of the phrase is “sliding glass doors,” which Bishop described as the threshold readers “have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author.” 

I interpret this as doing something with what has been learned. Instead of reshelving the book and forgetting all about it once it’s been finished, reflect on what just happened, the precious insight that has been given, how people who are different from you go about living their everyday lives. 

Bishop regards reading to be an act of self-affirmation, a quality that has been smothered by dusty, crusty, old white men and some white women, too. 

To diversify the canon is a win-win for everyone involved: POC readers can finally see themselves reflected in an array of works, more fantastic authors are brought to the community’s attention and — because white people can’t let POC have anything for just themselves — white readers get, another, chance to learn about those around them with different experiences and lifestyles.

Here’s to trading in the “classic” western canon for something bigger, brighter and better. 

Schutte can be reached at [email protected]