Boys Just Wanna Read Stories

Here’s the great question Kate asked the other day: why is it that more women than men read novels? One way you can tell it’s a great question is because it’s already spurred an interesting discussion in Litlove’s Reading Room about whether men and women read differently.  (And, just this morning, a wonderful essay by litlove on gender difference.)

My first move? To ask the four men I live with what they like to read. I can’t take a survey. I have to rely on anecdotal information. But that’s okay. It’s a blog, for heaven’s sake.

The BlogLily boys like to read stories and to have stories read to them. They love the Narnia books, Children of the Lamp, Harry Potter, the Moffats, the Fudge stories, and Greek myths. They really like comic books.

And they don’t care that much about whether the main characters are girls or boys. In fact, they don’t really like the kind of books where the characters are only girls or only boys. One boy said he likes his fiction “co-ed” – because it’s more interesting. Another boys pointed out that as long as a book is funny, he doesn’t care who the main character is. The other boy just likes it when there are pictures.

What do I take away from this? I’m inclined to believe that all children love stories – humans are just programmed that way. At this point, though, the question becomes one about whether children of both genders have equal access to the skills you need to read independently. My guess is that there are big swaths of boys, particularly boys in poorer families, who don’t become readers because of the problems they experience being taught how to read in school. And so, right there, some boy readers drop out. And then, I think there’s another big drop off because reading for pleasure isn’t seen as manly in American culture. So, when boys become teenagers, and being manly matters, this is something they might put aside. Some boys will not care about this particular definition of being manly — they just keep right on reading.

And then, say, you get to adulthood, a man who’s maybe been discouraged from reading fiction but still has that same desire to hear a story he’s always had. So what does he do? Here’s my guess: I think he reads stories, but he doesn’t call what he reads a “novel.”

Many men would call the books they read adventure stories, or mysteries, or thrillers, or biographies about people involved in adventures or mysteries or thrilling events. But one thing all these books have in common is that they tell wonderful stories and they fill our need to have someone tell us a tale.

My husband is my evidence for this. He’s an engineer. He’s not a person you’d think reads novels. But he does. (Unlike many other men, though, he knows when he’s reading a novel.) The first writer he remembers reading as a young adult was Alistair MacLean – he of Where Eagles Dare and The Eiger Sanction — adventure stories. He likes stories set in inhospitable places, it turns out. He reads them in the form of biographies, and non-fiction (books like Nansen’s Farthest North and that wonderful book about Lewis and Clark called Undaunted Courage). But he also reads fiction – he loves Patrick O’Brien, not just for the stories of adventure, but for stories of relationships. In none of this reading could he be said to be searching for “ideas” – he reads for what I think is a more common pleasure, the pleasure of a story well told, a story that takes you somewhere you don’t live. And I think many men do that, by seeking out genre fiction, to avoid the stigma of the “novel” and yet to have the pleasure of a story.

The thing I feel badly about, though, is that some boys lose this lovely connection to stories during childhood. These boys get some version of it when they play video games, but something deeper and richer is denied them. In the end, I hope smart people are putting energy into that problem, rather than into telling us that men don’t read novels because novels don’t have anything to say to them.

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18 thoughts on “Boys Just Wanna Read Stories

  1. Can’t speak for men in general…but for what it is worth, here is what I have observed. Never read much as a child–reading was something that was done indoors and all I wanted to do was get as far away from the house as possible. I spent most of my time outdoors. I calculated that I have spent over a year of my life in a tent. I noticed that I started reading more as I traveled. I picked up a book at the airport and finished it by the end of the business trip. Slowly the “habit” grew. I found that I began to keep a book by the bed and read each night before going to sleep. I seem to go thru “periods” where I read and then times where I do not find time to pick up a book. I tend to buy “easy reads”…junk fiction…I tend to read the book in two nights. It rained here last week……I went thru 3 books. In the last month…I probably read 12 books…Had a house guest that liked to read in the evenings. I’ll go another 6 months (or another business trip) without reading another book–kind of seeing movies…there are times when you go and times when you don’t. Not unlike you, I probably read 50 pages of work related material a day–never thought of reading as a gender related issue. Time spent not reading is not necessarily spent in front of a TV. For me at least, time spent reading often means time not spent outdoors. Play 6 rounds a golf a week …hard to find time to curl up with a book. Thinking back on it, however, I wish I had read more as a child–missed out on the “journey” that a good book offers a child and I can’t spell worth a damn.

  2. What I don’t understand in all this is that men *write* novels, so wouldn’t you think that men would read them?

    Does it have to do with men being more visually stimulated?

    Dad always read when we were growing up. He still does. Perhaps since the boys have W. as a role model, they’ll continue to read.

    Doug doesn’t read much for pleasure. He does read technical stuff, but nothing novel like.

    I read cereal boxes, trash novels, anything and everything. Heck, I even used to read encylopedias. 🙂

    Only one of my sons reads. Andrew will occasionally read science fiction.

    Ed, Tom, Mike – do you still read for pleasure?

  3. Bloglily, this is just a fantastic take on the question. I read it out loud to my husband and he (an engineer) and I both recognised him in it and our son. My husband pointed out that a lot of men like science fiction and fantasy a great deal, which is again an adventure genre but on a different planet. In response to the previous comment he also said that writing is different to reading in the same way that cooking is different to eating. My son adores being read to, but just can’t be bothered to read to himself. I offered to pay him this holiday if he read three books, and so far he’s read three chapters of one, but as a task, not a pleasure, which was not what I intended. He says ‘there are other things I like doing better in the daytime.’ Still, he does love comics and being read to, so there’s hope. Just got to keep the atmosphere of reading up (and that I can do!).

  4. This is an interesting post. This morning when I stepped into my underground train, I was again amazed by the number of people reading books. Men as much as women, so is London the city of exception ? (I wonder if the fact that mobile phones not working in underground trains has something to do with so many people reading.)

  5. My husband is an engineer too but he is not a reader of fiction. He loves magazines, especially computer and car ones, and I know he has to read technical material at work. But if he picks up a book it is most likely to be non-fiction. He loves the mathematical books of John Allen Paulos. Strangely, though, for six months in 2001 when we had no TV, he read loads of fantasy novels and got into Philip Pullman. Mostly these were books I passed on to him but he enjoyed them very much. When we got a TV, he went back to the magazines. English is not his first language, although he is bilingual. I wonder if he would read more fiction if it was readily available in his first language? I ought to ask him.

    When I was teaching I encountered so many young men with poor literacy skills that I have become super-worried that my son will be left behind when he starts school. I want to teach him to read before he goes to school. I read to him every night and have found a big pile of my old books to take back to Australia with me. He is more interested in wrestling the book off me and trying to stuff it in his mouth but it is early days. Your boys are all readers, Bloglily. That is encouraging to me.

    Oh – and I agree – it is human nature to love a story whatever form it comes in.

  6. My son, Casey (16) has read all Tolkien, all Douglas Adams, all Potter, most Roald Dahl, much Dan Brown, some Bradbury, Twain, Crichton, and on and on. Between fiction he reads collections of facts and non fiction. His mom (Karen) devours fiction. I read non fiction. Mags, news, psych, spiritual, geography, culture,adventure. I read only a fraction of what those two read.

    I think it is the family environment and one’s temperment. We have only one television and it is at the farthest reaches of our home. The living room is for guests and reading. Every room except the baths has a book case or shelf. We love books

    Casey is a well rounded kid who plays cello and guitar and plays sports with his friends. He works at a camp and enjoys socializing with everyone. I think too many children are “specialized” by their parents at such early ages and miss the opportunity of a life full of varied experiences and competencies.

  7. This is another interesting take on the question, and I think it again illustrates just how complicated, if not impossible, it is to find gendered explanations. You may be right that boys are, in some cases, taught to pull away from novels, so they look to genre writing as a way of getting a good story without all the fuss. On the other hand, I am a male reader with very little patience for non-fiction or technical writing, so I don’t know how that fits into the puzzle. At any rate, I am happy to see so many good bloggers wrestling with this big question. We may not come up with an answer, but we will sure come up with something to say about men, women, and reading.

  8. I read fiction in waves. After having read a couple of novels (yes, novels, not thrillers or horror stories) there’s usually something I have an urge to learn about, so I read a non-fiction book on the subject, maybe followed by some more.

    Also, I have a soft spot for biographies. Whenever I pick up a bio of some sort, it soon takes precedence. Be it Samuel Pepys, Casanova or John Cleese, reading real lives has a fascination for me.

    And then, one day, I grab a novel again and a new fiction period sets in. So I think the obly reason I stray from fiction now and then (well, about 40% of the time) is the urge to learn. But still I can’t resist a good story.

  9. I like literature of all shapes and scents — definitely not the genre-prone. I’ve fallen into a rut of philosophy for the last few years, but I typically read as nearly anything I can get my hands on.

    The books I like best are the ones that change something inside, whether it brings tears to my eyes, makes me think of the world in a different light, makes me laugh or makes me wish I could fly. It’s an audible click for me — *click* I awaken to something new. It is the same with music for me — I’m addicted to music and books that trigger that click.

    When I listened to an audiobook of Heaney’s translation of Beowolf, I was enthralled. I rushed out and bought the book — it was a “must have” for my collection. It stirred my imagination. I’m always hunting for those books, and so I sometimes read things that are not fulfilling in that fashion, but it all worthwhile when I find a Beowolf, a Time Enough For Love, a Catcher In the Rye, a Les Liasons Dangereuses, an American Gods…

    Something that makes me pause, put the book down, and give thanks that someone can touch me in such a way. Then, I pick it back up and read those passages again (sometimes over and over to savor them).

    I may be a chemist, but my first love is literature.

  10. Here I’ve been busy working (and not reading stories, alas!) and all of you have been carrying on this wonderful discussion. One thing I think is obvious is that boys who grow up in houses where reading is valued end up having access to reading when they need it. And we all need different things in our reading at different times. What’s really lovely is how many people feel so strongly about literacy here. I like being in your company very much.

  11. I had a former colleague in the library world who insisted people were either born with “reading genes” or they weren’t (she was a reading fanatic. Her husband and three daughters weren’t). I lean more towards this philosophy, and am not sure the “reading gene” distinquishes between the sexes. In my family of birth, which consists of four women and two men, we are all complete book addicts (of both fiction and nonfiction, and will read all types of stuff, regardless of our gender. My father adores Jane Austen, for instance). My husband is a book addict (both fiction and nonfiction and is a former high school English teacher), and in his family of four (3 males, 1 female), only one wasn’t an addict (his brother), but when his brother does read, he tends to read fiction thrillers. The “addicts” in my husband’s family, again, weren’t that discriminatory along gender lines. That being said, I do think there are just certain things men seem to appreciate more than women, when it comes to reading, like Patrick O’Brien and Herman Melville (but maybe that’s just my own personal bias). And Qazse, I absolutely agree with you when it comes to the “specialization” of young people.

  12. I came from a reading home, and my husband did too, so we are both readers of novels, and of other things. We cross over at many points – Phillip Roth, Ian McEwan, Joanthan Coe, David Mitchell – but deviate when it comes to what he calls my ‘femino-chick-lit’ – Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith. I struggle to remember any female authors he has read recently. He does like PD James, but doesn’t go for Ruth Rendell. He liked the spy novel by the head of MI5 (can’t remember her name) and will read most spy/thriller books he can get his hands on. He loves being whisked away to another world, but, it seems, the further away from our own lives the better.
    No matter what books our two girls and a boy choose to read, we just hope they will be readers, and we read, read, read to them constantly.

  13. I am like your husband in that I also love to read primarily for pleasure–for a really good story. I like the idea of being transported away from here and now to escape to somewhere else. I am not sure what you mean for reading for “ideas”. To learn something new? If that is the case, I do that too, but probably the pleasure factor comes first with certain books. I like your survey, by the way!

  14. Hi Emily, It’s so interesting to think about whether men generally like different sorts of subjects than women and why that might be. It’s worth thinking about, particularly if you’re a publisher. Writers just write what they feel compelled to write. What’s funny is that women do read men, as Charlotte points out (although I’ve gone through periods of only reading women), but I’m not sure if that goes the other way. Hmm. I need to look about me, because that does interest me. Danielle, on Kate’s post, one of the people she quotes (someone who’d made a stab at explaining the differences in reading tastes) speculated that men like to read books about “ideas” and that novels aren’t about ideas. That’s a bit silly, as you point out — we all like to learn new things, that’s why we read novels. And I’m glad you liked my survey. My children seem to enjoy being surveyed.

    xxoo, Bl

  15. I would agree that a lot depends on how reading is valued in the household. My parents subscribed to every newspaper and major magazine around, and my father used to drive us four kids (two boys, two girls) to the library each week. Although only two of us now are really big readers (me and my older brother), we all graduated from college.

  16. There’s probably no point in me throwing in my two cents, as when it comes to reading, I’ve always been a freak: no-one in my family is a reader, no-one in the community in which I spent my early childhood was much of a reader, my school even actively discouraged me from reading, thinking it far more important that I be out playing rugby and socialising than expanding the horizons set by my very small rural community. I’m probably also a freak in that I tend to eschew adventure stories (I consumed one a day all the way through my mid teens), read sci-fi, crime and aother traditionally male novels as a sideline, and have read and enjoyed all the authors mentioned by Charlotte above.

  17. Of coure there is Barry! Your two cents are quite welcome. Sometimes who we are is very much a matter of who we’re driven to be in opposition to where we grow up — and it could be that these qualities are so strong in you because they were formed in spite of, rather than because of, what you were told you should do. I’m glad you made it over here!

    LK — Your father sounds like a lovely guy. My parents took us to the library every week too. In retrospect, I think this was partly for my dad’s benefit, needing something to feed his reading habit!

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