Reviews may vary
Dr. Kenya Malcolm holds no bias against books
Let’s face it, there’s no resisting a good story. It doesn’t matter if that story comes from binge watching Netflix, hearing spooky tales around a campfire, or listening to a favorite podcast while driving to work. Dr. Kenya Malcolm loves stories, too, and she gets her fill of them through books. Lots and lots of books.
No, really. She read 126 books in 2020.
Malcolm is a clinical psychologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center and serves as the director of Early Childhood Initiatives for the Department of Psychiatry. When she gets home, she relaxes with a good book.
“I don’t watch TV at all, or almost at all,” she says. “I’ll watch something as long as it’s not a whole movie. Or, if I’m in the mood for a movie, it’s usually something we (she and her family) have watched before.”
Not watching much television frees up her time to enjoy the stacks of books she picks up from the public library or has in her own personal collection. What she reads can vary based on recommendations from friends and fellow book lovers, as well as ones she stumbles upon while searching for new books.
“I also tend to read based on my mood. And I tend to read based on what other people are talking about,” says Malcolm.
Malcolm holds no biases against genres. Romance, speculative fiction, young adult, middle grade, nonfiction, and many, many others are all fair game. Malcolm is willing to give almost any book a fair shot, and because she reads so much so quickly, she is willing to try a variety of different titles.
“If I was somebody that was only getting through one book a month, let’s say, I’d want that one book to be really good. But because I’m going to read a lot, thirty percent of the books I read I wouldn’t recommend to anyone. You know, it can be like, ‘Oh, I like that cover, I got a hole in my bookshelf, let me grab that.’ Or, when I go to the library, I might take four or five to add to the four or five I already picked up, and then I’m probably going to read eight of those ten because there’s not enough time in my life.”
Originally Malcolm’s social media accounts were personal with occasional book and theater reviews. But, over the course of the last several months, she changed her focus to book content, particularly on Instagram. At just over 6,200 followers, Malcolm is becoming quite the “Bookstagram” star.
“The last ten months I’ve gained like 5,000 followers, because it’s concentrated content. I think that once you start getting into a community of anything, it really inspires you to be more aware of what’s happening, and read books and share books and all those kinds of things in a different way.”
Her Instagram (@reviewsmayvary) is filled with sumptuous images of books, tea pots, and glimpses of her personal card catalog cabinet. Her reels range from fun videos of her unboxing stacks of books she’s ordered online to brewing tea in one of her many cool mugs.
Around the same time her Instagram account gained ground, she started a YouTube (aka BookTube) channel for all things books, including reviews. Each video is a concise glimpse into Malcolm’s literary life. It’s a great way to get some book recommendations and feel like you’re sitting with a friend, talking about your latest library or bookstore finds.
It’s clear that Malcolm engages with her followers on all of her social media platforms out of her sheer love of books and not for any type of accolades or special attention. It’s that authenticity that draws her followers to her, says Monroe Community College English professor Tokeya C. Graham. Graham has known Malcolm for ten years.
“She’s controlling her own narrative about books and ‘Bookstagraming’ and curating these spaces about her love of literature and everything that she does that is literary related. She always brings her full Kenya self, and I think that’s the thing that’s so appealing to people, is that she is so authentically herself: kooky, quirky, interesting, creative, colorful, self-deprecating, take-no-stuff. You get all of that on all of [her] platforms,” says Graham.
Chris Fanning, director of communications and special events at Writers & Books, met Malcolm about fourteen years ago when they were in a book club together. He, too, believes that her passion and love of books is what makes her so good at ‘Bookstagraming,’ ‘BookTubing,’ etc.
“The thing that just marvels me about Kenya is she works at a hospital. She has this high-stress job while also having a family and then reads, you know, a hundred books a week. So she is clearly someone who, as a consumer of literature, is making time for it,” says Fanning.
“It’s not something she is getting paid for. This is a passion, it’s not a hobby. People who read books are hobbyists, sure, but then you have these people who just have this insatiable hunger for consuming the written word, and I believe that that is a camp that Kenya falls into.”
One might think that someone so devoted to books and who doesn’t really watch television might be, well, a snob about it. But anyone who knows or follows Malcolm knows that she is anything but a snob when it comes to books or reading in general. For her, it’s about storytelling.
“I’m judged less for reading a lot of books versus people who watch a lot of TV, because they think it’s not as good,” says Malcolm. “But I think about storytelling more broadly. Watching things is about hearing stories, too.”
She also notes that for some, reading poses challenges, and so they get their fill of stories in other places. It doesn’t make them less intelligent or informed, though.
“A lot of people feel like reading is more work, and it can be if you’re not used to it. But I don’t think of it as superior.”
And some people just do not like books, and for Malcolm there is simply nothing wrong with that. “I think we all have different strengths and skills and all of those kinds of things. And if somebody says ‘I’m not really a reader,’ I think that’s okay.”
There are also several other reasons someone might not enjoy books the way she does, and none of those reasons are invalid.
“There are some books that [non-booklovers] would want to read. But also there’s this element of they’ve probably never enjoyed reading, it might not be about the book or it could be hard for them. Or they prefer things in a different way. To sit down and read a book requires the sitting, the down [time], the reading, the comprehension, you know, all of those things. And not feeling comfortable with any one of those things makes reading harder.”
She continues on to say that human nature sometimes makes people want to put each other in easy categories and “us versus them” is a comfortable, though not healthy or productive, place to sit.
“It’s almost defensive, though, right? Like, if I really like something, and you don’t, then it means there’s something wrong with one of us, and I need it to be you,” says Malcolm.
Graham often sees the same phenomenon around her. “I think that so many times we get into this space where we don’t have good esteem about who we are as people, and we look for anything to tear them down, whether it’s what they read, who they read, what things they’re talking about when they’re reading.”
She also points out that books and reading materials were historically denied to the Black community. “So being able to read or being able to write or having access to those things was a privilege. Even though it was always a right, it was a privilege because it was denied. Black people would be killed if they were caught trying to even learn their letters, or anyone caught trying to teach them their letters or how to read or how to write—they would be persecuted. So, you have the stigma of that.”
Malcolm is a book lover but notes that reading and literacy is not just about books. She might encourage a child she is working with who may not like books to try a magazine, for example. And Graham notes that readers don’t just read books; they read websites, newspapers, and other media.
“If books are the only places that we think our stories are contained, then that’s problematic,” says Graham.
Speaking of storytelling beyond books, Malcolm is also a theater lover, but not just as an audience member. Fanning has worked with her for several years at Writers & Books during the 24 Hour Plays at Rochester Fringe Festival and is familiar with her as an actor and supporter of the theater arts.
“I’ve seen her in multiple productions and then again, of course, worked with her on twenty-four-hour plays. She manages, she does costumes, she’s on boards. And you know, of course, then you have the discussion of, ‘Well, isn’t theater part of the literary field? Don’t scripts and playwriting fall into the same genre?’ And they do! It’s just that extra step of taking the words off the page and bringing them to life through performance, and she can do that, which is not something everyone can.”
Malcolm is also the president of the board of directors for the Rochester Teen Book Festival. You can read her book of the month articles in Blaqueout Magazine (blaqueout.org) and find her on social media at @reviewsmayvary.