The Well Read Man

Posted by @ 2:30 pm on May 27th, 2011

Books are popular fodder for lists, and why not? There are so many books being published. Book-related lists can be useful in cutting through some of the noise in a time when more than 200,000 new books are released each year, in the United States alone.

Yesterday, Esquire released a list of 75 books every man should read. They make such lists regularly so the list, in and of itself, is not remarkable. There are some really great books included like Lolita and Call of the Wild and The Things They Carried and Winter’s Bone and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. The list offers a nice blend of contemporary and classic fiction. I was particularly pleased to see Edward P. Jones’s outstanding The Known World mentioned. I cannot say there’s a book on that list that doesn’t deserve the recognition. The list is certainly very masculine in tone, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Great books are great books and there’s something to be said for muscular prose. My list would probably look somewhat different but so would yours. Reading is personal and taste is subjective.

It is curious, though, that out of all 75 books every man should read, only one, not two or five or seventeen, but one of those books, A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor, is written by a woman. I should be surprised by this imbalance but I’m not. Is anyone?

Esquire is a men’s magazine so it makes sense that a reading list they curate will reflect certain themes and biases. What’s troubling though, is the implication that men should only read literature written by men, that men don’t need to bother with books written by women, and of course, that the only great books are those written by men. What other message can we take from a list where seventy-four books are written by men and only one is written by a woman? Women writers are being done a disservice but the far greater disservice here is to men. This list not only perpetuates the erasure of great writing by women, it cultivates the erroneous and myopic notion that men only want to read a certain kind of book. If I were a man, I’d find this list insulting.

It is rather hollow to assume reading is gendered, that there are books for men and books for women. While certain genres are gendered—romance novels for us ladies what with all the bodice ripping and pulsing shafts, and testosterone-laden adventure novels, science fiction and westerns for the gentleman reader–most of the time people just want to read great writing. Perhaps there is, indeed, some truth to the idea that there are certain books we gravitate toward as men and women, though I will say while I’ve never seen a man reading a romance novel, at least not in public, women seem to read across genres, even those labeled as more “masculine.” Do men feel they should only read certain types of books? Or is it that men are only interested in certain types of books? I don’t know. The year, however, is 2011. We can and should transcend the rigid gender binaries our predecessors were forced into. Any list of seventy-five great books a man should read, must include fiction by women, not because the books were written by women but because the books deserve to be recognized. Even considering the testostertone (new word) of this list, books like Out of Africa, The Talented Mr. Ripley, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Handmaiden’s Tale, Giant, and any number of books could and should have been included.

I often think about what it means to be well read. There’s no one definition of what that means but I do believe you have to read a diverse range of texts. You have to read across genres and cultures. You have to read writing that experiments with form and narrative and you most certainly have to read books written by both men and women. The seventy-five books on Esquire’s list would not contribute to anyone being well read because the scope is far too narrow. This list actively encourages men (and women) to not be well read. It encourages men to believe there’s only one kind of book they should be reading–something rugged and masculine and constrictively gender appropriate. That’s a real shame.

We don’t know who made this list or how the Esquire staff came up with the books they included but we do know they aren’t very well read. At the beginning of the list there is a disclaimer: “An unranked, incomplete, utterly biased list of the greatest works of literature ever published,” as if by acknowledging the “utter bias,” the glaring omission of women is totally fine. Either the editors noticed this omission of women from this list and didn’t care or they didn’t notice at all. Both alternatives are lousy. If this most recent list of great books was the only instance where women were woefully underrepresented and where the wrong message about great writing was being sent, that would be one thing. Such is not the case. We keep having this conversation over and over and over again. Editors continue compiling these lists of great literature that completely ignore great literature by women as if  books by women were never written, as if that literature doesn’t matter, as it that literature is somehow less deserving of an audience than the same old books trotted out every time we talk about great books. This pervasive and persistent erasure is tedious. Some people will say I’m over thinking this and that may be true but if I’m overthinking this list and the larger issues lists like these speak to, the editors of Esquire and their ilk are not putting enough thought into the lists they make and the messages those lists send.  I am quite comfortable erring on the side of thinking too much than to giving something inadequate consideration.

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