Image of two generals dividing the Earth with bookshelf overlaid.

What Does it Mean to “Decolonize Your Bookshelf”?

Many among us are obsessed with the state of our bookshelves. We meticulously organize, arrange, and decorate our personal libraries according to varying criteria: author, title, color, height, etc. But how often have you paused to consider how those books made it to your bookshelf? Have you ever read between the lines of one of your favorite works and found something troubling? And how often have you stopped to wonder about the classic works accepted into the Western literary canon and why they’re there?


Those of us who have ever studied postcolonial theory have, at the very least, a cursory familiarity with how pervasive the effects of colonial history have been and still are on society. Everything from politics to beauty products has been touched by colonialism, and there is still contention over whether or not colonization is even a thing of the past.



Map of the British Empire circa 1897

Image Via The British Empire


Colonialism has had one of its most insidious effects on literature. For instance, today when we hear of colonial regimes and policies, we recoil instantly (or at least one would hope that’s the general response), yet we still hold up works like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as being examples of exemplary literary skill and talent in spite of its perpetuation of horrific colonial narratives. And aside from lauding literature that directly engages with colonial oppression, there is an even more insidious effect of colonialism that erases the narratives written by those who are/have been colonized.



Shelf of selected works in the Western canon.

Image Via MC Easton


When I was in college, I elected to take a course on Caribbean literature; it was taught by one of my favorite professors, and I trusted that in addition to a new world of literature, I would also be getting an important history lesson. In one of the first weeks of the class, my professor told us an anecdote about what happened when she told her mother about the class. Her mother, who was living in another country at the time, decided to visit her local library to pick up a few volumes of Caribbean literature in order to get a sense of what her daughter would be teaching. When she asked the librarian where their Caribbean literature section could be found, the librarian responded: “Oh, I don’t think they have literature there.”




Image Via Tenor


I hope I’m not the first to tell you this: yes, the Caribbean has literature. In fact, there is some amazing Caribbean literature you can look up with a quick Google search, literature you probably haven’t heard of before, unless you’ve had the opportunity to devote serious time to literary study. This is not because these texts require some level of exclusive literary expertise to access, but simply because the famous works everyone has heard of were written by people who had the power to circulate them all over the world, specifically people who are white European men.


The phrase “decolonize your bookshelf” has been on the rise in recent years, and its meaning is fairly simple. Decolonizing your bookshelf means examining the books you keep and the books you love and considering whether/how each book has served to uphold the acts of colonialism. In addition to sifting through the works you’ve already read, decolonizing your bookshelf means actively seeking out and reading works by authors whose work has been disadvantaged by colonialism. There is an incredible wealth of literature out there that has not made it into the Western canon simply because of the circumstances in which the author lived/lives.


Now to be clear, you aren’t a bad person if a significant percentage of the books in your collection were written by white European men. The reason why that percentage may be high has more to do with the systems in place that delivered you to that literature rather than any fault of your own. And by the way, no one is going to begrudge you your favorite books. The point of decolonizing your bookshelf is not to punish you, but rather to recognize the circumstances that suppress the literary output of colonized or formerly colonized people, and to swim against the tide in an effort to resist some of history’s evils. The destruction of colonialism can never be undone, but we can (and should!) certainly find ways to honor what has been destroyed.


Banner draped on the steps of the Brooklyn Museum reading "WHEN WE BREATHE WE BREATHE TOGETHER DECOLONIZE THIS PLACE"

Image Via Hyperallergic



Featured Image Via South Africa Today and Everything Fiction Wiki.