JJ Vincent ponders the choices men have to make about what they do in public, and how much other people’s perceptions really matter.
This is probably a little old-fashioned, what with the ubiquity of e-readers and smartphones, but there are still plenty of us who read paper books when we are waiting for something, or find ourselves stuck in a doctor’s waiting room looking for something to read. The question is, what do we read, and why?
There are plenty of books out there targeted to a male audience—action-adventure novels, male-protagonist mysteries, science fiction series, how-to-get-ahead-in-business, biographies of great (or at least celebrated) men, and even a growing amount of literary fiction, with a tendency towards male main characters that play into the stereotype of the wild, troubled, sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll manchild or the man-on-the-wrong-path who-needs-a-woman-to-set-him-right guy. And books in all of these genres are all well and good. People reading and discussing what they read is good. But what about those of us who want to read something else, or find ourselves choosing between staring at a wall or flipping through April’s Cosmo or Modern Mom’s Monthly?
When I’m looking for a book to travel with, I consider my selections carefully. First, where am I going? Am I going to a coffee house or a lunch-for-one where everyone else is occupied or I’ll be in a tiny booth? Am I getting oil-changed and sitting in an auto shop waiting room? Am I at a ball game waiting for the first pitch? Am I going to be with co-workers? Am I going to be in an airport? Am I on a long drive and stopping for food at a small town diner? In other words, what is the likelihood that I am going to be taunted-or worse-for my choice of reading material?
I know there are going to be plenty of you who say that I should just do what I want and not care what other people think, but let’s be real. Some of us have to care. Some of us, by virtue of our appearance and size, are bully magnets, even in middle age. Some of us don’t want confrontation. Some of us have spent our whole lives fighting to be left alone and are tired of fighting. Suck it up and deal with it, you say? Man up? Just ignore them, don’t be such a wuss? Thank you, you’ve just reinforced the reason why I’m not likely to ever take a kitchen-cozy mystery out in public.
As much as we’d like to pretend that we men today are more open and less judgmental, consider what you’d think if you saw a man reading a Ladies Home Journal in the dentist’s office or DIY for Moms in the tire shop holding pen, or “The Joy Luck Club” or anything with a group of women on the cover while in queue at the DMV. You might look twice and wonder why the heck he was reading that. Would you make an assumption about his sexuality? His manliness? His job? Would you elbow your buddy and nod your head at the guy? What if you knew he coached high school football or was the State Bar President? If you asked a guy who was laughing hysterically at his e-reader what he was reading and he said,”Tina Fey’s new book,” would you keep talking or move away? What if that same guy showed up at your house the next day to fix the toilet YOU broke while trying to fix it? Would you be nervous?
Myself, I try to limit what assumptions people make. I never leave home without a few books. I have them stashed in my car and office. But they are, by and large, “man-approved” authors and titles (side note: I own all of these authors because I LOVE their work. If I strictly wanted to be socially acceptable, this would be a sci-fi/action/sports list and I’d be miserable). Dan Brown. Preston/Childs. Chuck Palahniuk. Anthony Bourdain. Hunter S. Thompson. I have a few other “women’s authors/books” mixed in. Fannie Flagg. Sarah Waters. Isabel Allende. Jane Austen. If I’m going to actively read in public, I choose carefully. Reading in public while eating a meal alone is an act of social rebellion in itself. No need to push my luck.
I was at Book Expo America (huge, HUGE book trade show) a few months ago, and at more than a few booths I noticed the segregation of “men’s” and “women’s” titles. If a publisher was promoting books targeting these audiences, the books were segregated within the booth. This was especially true in the religion and children’s area and with popular fiction titles. It was less true in the university press and novelty press booths. I guess academia and humor are gender-free? And generally speaking, men were pitching the “men’s” books and women were pitching the “women’s” books, and books about politics and history were usually displayed in the “men’s” area. It’s not hard to see where some of the core reinforcing of stereotypes is coming from.
I wonder what would happen if all books were printed with black covers with shiny black writing, so that no picture or gender-specific color could give away the contents. Would men be more open to reading, say, the history of women in cinema, or a novel by Oprah Winfrey, or a biography of Celine Dion, if no one could see it?
Maybe that’s one of the reasons FOR the growing popularity of e-readers…no one has to know what you are reading. A guy could even get away with a Harlequin romance…provided he could manage not to blush.
photo: zamanbabu / flickr