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February 25, 2008

Men and Books: Who Doesn't Read?

Posted by carol
One of the questions that I am asked most is about men and book clubs. Are they in book clubs? And WHAT do they read? We did an interview with Andrew McCullough, the founder of the Man Book Club in Marin County, California on and when we decided to do this blog he was one of the first people who we invited to join as a regular contributor. Uniquely qualified to share his insights on men's reading habits, Andrew balances discipline and humor to keep his gang of men reading and sharing. The Man Book Club culls titles from award-winning authors (always men!) and every member votes on the proposed selection. This month, in a departure from fiction, they are reading THE NINE by Jeffrey Toobin.

As an oppressed minority, I'm occasionally asked to generalize about the experiences of men who, like me, quietly belong to book groups. It's easy to describe what men like to read (shorter books, no chick lit), but much harder to tease out the subtler differences between men and women. So, for now, I won't pretend to. Instead, I'll stick with what I do best and generalize wildly about men and reading.

My all-time favorite topic (after professional football and climate change) is the I Don't Read canard, which is manifested in this particular brush-off: "I can't be in a book group because I don't read." The variations on this theme are: "I don't like to read fiction" and "I don't have enough time to read." The inconsistencies point to an obvious conclusion: men do read but hate to admit it, especially if it means being drawn into a book group.

The evidence is overwhelming. Men are voracious consumers of anything sports. We proudly subscribe to scientific and technical periodicals. Everything from Atlantic Monthly to Vanity Fair is comfortably within our range. Heck, we'll even admit to reading our equivalents of Shape and Self (and that does include Maxim!). But the difference between magazines and books is where the trouble starts.

With magazines, we define ourselves as tech-savvy or politically informed or socially conscious. But books, especially those picked by others in a book group, risk pulling us down a slippery slope. There are certain authors that are poison to most men. (That's why we stopped reading Jane Austen, if we ever did, in high school.) There are others that provide just the right masculine halo. (Norman Mailer, may you rest in peace.) And then there are all those other titles and authors of unknown provenance. They're the ones that make us nervous.

But it's not just author and subject matter that worry men. The prospect of actually discussing a book can terrify some of us. The liberal arts types may forge ahead, but the contractors and engineers find dissecting books alarming. Reading guides help, but they sometimes contain words that only an English major could love. The solution for most guys is to steer clear of jargon and go with simple declaratives like, "The main character was such a jerk!" or "What a lousy ending!" or "That book sure was looong!"After a few shared sound bites, most men loosen up and then the real discussion gets going.

When a man tells you he's not really into the book club thing, listen to his protests and decide if they're genuine. But if he tells you he just doesn't like reading fiction, offer the following coded response: "I don't either, except for maybe Cormac McCarthy...that dude is phat!"