If you believe reading is emasculating, guess what? You’re right.
I was quite surprised the first time someone told me reading was for girls. I was in 2nd grade, enrolled in a new school, and a boy asked what I liked doing. I told him and he scoffed, “Reading’s for girls. What do you really like to do?”
Later, I asked my grandfather why the kid spoke this way. My grandfather would read me stories before bed each Saturday night when I went over to stay at his home, and some of my favorite childhood memories are linked to the feeling of warmth I experienced listening to him read. He was a war refugee and didn’t mince words. “That kid is an idiot,” he said. “Unfortunately, he’s learned from fools, and fools will learn from him.”
Soon enough, I learned I was strange among boys, at least in my neighborhood and the schools I attended. The nerds who enjoyed reading were, like me, interested in things like role-playing games and other flights of the imagination, but there weren’t very many of us, and we didn’t really participate in reality.
Reality was for athletic, popular boys. People know how things break down in junior high and high school: popular boys don’t read. Neither do boys who aspire to popularity. What about the boys interested in floundering around? They don’t read either. It’s not a stereotype, and there’s nothing controversial about saying it.
In fact, it’s only part of the story because the boys who don’t read end up becoming men, and right now we belong to a culture where men account for about 20% of the fiction market. When they do read, they choose “thrillers”.
I’m an educator and I notice it constantly here at the community college where I work. Because the vast majority of young men don’t read—it is damn near impossible to get them to read even about subjects they claim to like—their reading skills are poor. And with poor reading skills come poor information gathering skills, poorer thinking skills. The consequences are vast, not merely centered on the individual. There are also cultural consequences, few of them good.
Agent Nat Sobel, speaking to Jofie Ferrari-Adler of Poets and Writers magazine, discussed (among other things) the plight of the male writer in a now famous 2008 interview. The whole thing is worth reading for anyone with an interest in publishing. It illuminates a consequence of a culture whose men don’t read very much: a publishing industry that largely ignores them.
Ferrari-Adler asks Sobel if—in an environment where the majority of readers are women—it’s more difficult for a man to get published. “I certainly think it’s very difficult for male writers who are not writing thrillers,” says Sobel. “They have a much tougher road. We’ve read a number of pretty good novels by male writers that we know just won’t [sell]. Male coming-of-age novels are impossible to sell.”
I interviewed author Stuart Dybek about these comments, and his (rather sarcastic) suggestion was simply for men to write memoirs. But why should an author have to settle for a form he’s not interested in? The reason, of course, is because he wants to be read, and if he wants to be read, he has to find a way to appeal to the reader. In this culture that reader, the one who’ll actually buy the book, is more often than not a woman.
Here’s Sobel, making it crystal clear:
…if a male writer can write from the female point of view, or has a story that will interest a woman’s audience, I think he has a better chance than somebody who’s writing the kind of Hemingway-esque stuff we read in school.
Now, here I am writing an article suggesting more men should read books of quality. It’s immediately layered with unfortunate problems. The person who needs this message the most is probably not reading it. Then there’s the issue of wondering who among my readers understands the term Hemingway-esque. Hemingway was an important 20th century writer. But now he’s generally regarded as a buffoon. He has been removed from schools for several decades, and the young men I teach here at the community college—our campus is only several miles from Hemingway’s birthplace—have never heard of him. When I was studying writing, Hemingway was derided by various parties, including prestigious academics, for being a macho drunk.
Ernest Hemingway told stories about boys going on adventures with dad and contemplating mortality. He told ironic accounts of getting wartime decorations for eating cheese while a bomb goes off nearby. In one of his short stories, we meet an old farmer who, having fled a battle, is expressing worry and sympathy for the animals who most likely perished. All of these stories express the depth of what it is to be male.
There are young men alive right now, veterans struggling to fit into society, boys who feel a school system is isolating them, businessmen battling some corruption or inequity who have vital stories to tell and the talent to tell them. Should their goal be to share their experience and perspective exactly as it is, or should they be worrying how to appeal to women?
We can look at this as a Catch-22 scenario where men do not find reading content interesting because the publishing industry doesn’t offer them anything (besides thrillers) or actively market to them. To flip it, the publishing industry does not think they are interested because men express little interest. There’s another way of thinking about it, however, and this is what I believe: by failing to read and take an interest in the business of books, men are actively participating in their own silencing. Isn’t that, and not the act of reading a book, what’s truly emasculating?
So many reasons have been presented for why boys don’t read. Authors like Richard Whitmire and Leonard Sax have explored the reasons, the culture that’s toxic to their education, and they’ve offered tangible solutions. I’m not a social scientist or a psychologist, so I don’t feel I can join them in their study. However, I’m a writer and I work with at risk youth, so I have the liberty to rant:
When a man reads, reading is fucking masculine. And when a man writes, he’s taking action, releasing energy, sharing his soul, contributing to society, being himself: a man. He does not need a man-card, a cheap beer or anybody’s damn permission to do it. Yes, it takes courage, guts and discipline to write. Writing and reading both require and build wisdom and patience, virtues of the mature. Maturity is fucking masculine, okay, just as wisdom and patience are masculine.
It is also perfectly acceptable, as I told a young man in my office one time, to pick up The Diary of Anne Frank and read it in public. I use this book in one of my classes and the boy wasn’t sure if he should be carrying it around. “It’s like a girl’s diary. She gets all bitchy in there with her sister. It’s for girls.”
There is nothing emasculating about reading, and there is no book in the world that will castrate us. On the contrary, a book written by a girl (one killed in a stupid, tragic war) offers something few sources can: the capacity for us to see the world from someone else’s point of view. Books offer us—in fact, they require—the capacity to develop empathy. Perhaps empathy isn’t “thrilling”. But it is barbaric to consider empathy emasculating.
It’s also a massive indictment that we need to be having this conversation in the first place.
Photo by Bruce Tuten
True Community runs each Wednesday. Gint Aras explores his experiences as an instructor in a community college that serves a lower-middle to lower class district in Chicagoland.
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