The Day I Read a Book
Brian McGackin is, I’m all but certain, a real man. He and I probably read different sorts of things, though. He has a book coming out called Broetry: Poetry for Dudes which makes me think he might not be the goto on feminist literary theory. But he also wrote a column in the June 6 issue of the New York Daily News that got me thinking. Thinking things I’d thought before, if now with different words.
Under the headline “When writers were real men” (weird, I never noticed the News favors Euro capitalization rules), McGackin argues that the publishing world is wanting for manly writers. “Where have all the booze-swilling Dylan Thomases gone?” he asks. “Without the kinds of drinkers (Faulkner), brawlers (Hemingway) and lotharios (Bellow) who used to write our greatest works of literature, it’s no wonder that masculinity has bone elsewhere (say, Kid Rock) for self-validation.”
The fact that times have changed doesn’t figure into his argument, and he (unsurprisingly) makes no mention of José Saramago, Paul Auster, David Markson, or Don DeLillo, any one of whom could broaden, if not entirely bolster, his argument. Even Milan Kundera could provide him with some of the action for which he yearns. And while McGackin is playing it for laughs, he writes an interesting column, hinging on a supposition that is worth consideration: that it is women who buy and read novels, and so it is women to whom the industry caters.
In that regard, he may have a point. McGackin quotes a 2007 National Public Radio story which claimed that 80% of fiction is consumed by women. I can point to nothing which would suggest that’s wrong. Of the fiction-readers among my friends, most are women. My male friends more often than not read nonfiction, news magazines and tech journals, or else say that that’s what they would read if they were to read.
I was reading McGackin’s op-ed on the subway at about 5:30 pm Monday. I decided to using the train as my own covert polling ground — hardly scientific but, I think, fairly unbiased (unless, perhaps, New Yorkers are more or less likely to read than people in other regions). My survey took place on one downtown A car and two cars on the F, and here is what I found. Six people I saw were reading books, four of whom were female. Thirteen people were reading newspapers or magazines, seven of whom were women. And I saw five people portable electronic readers, three of whom were women. (I excluded people who might have been reading from smartphones because, I decided, it was likely — although not certain — that they weren’t reading published material. The ones I counted were reading from larger, tablet devices.) So in my unscientific study, women edged out men in each media. More people, of course, were listening to headphones, perhaps one of them even listening to an audiobook. But the majority of them were just sitting, taking in nothing, or taking in everything. Perhaps they were letting time slip by unused — or maybe they were the better people, not succumbing to any distraction as they rocketed underground with their fellow citizens.
I was reminded, then, of a discussion on my Facebook wall after I posted an article entitled “250 Books by Women All Men Should Read.” The fiction website and publisher Joyland collected reader suggestions for the list, and scrolling through it I was sad to discover I’d read about one-fiftieth of the suggestions (and that’s if you round up for Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, which I didn’t finish but always say I’ll go back to). In fact, most on the list I had read years ago when I was, frankly, more driven toward horizon-broadening. I read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, for the love of Patricia! But that one didn’t make the Joyland list. And while I got a point for Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, I thought Cat’s Eye would have been a better candidate. Still, I was left — as is so often the case — with the feeling of being less than well read.
The Joyland list came about in response to a list in Esquire magazine of “75 Books All Men Should Read.” So, continuing in my pseudosociopolitical literary self-evaluation, I clicked through to that list to discover I’d read the wrong Dostoevsky, the wrong Studs Terkel, the wrong Philip Roth, the wrong Hunter S. Thompson, the wrong Ernest Hemingway, the wrong William Faulkner, the wrong Leo Tolstoy and the wrong Don DeLillo. Still, I had read 20% of the selections on that list, or ten times better than I fared on the Joyland list.
Of course, there’s nothing saying these lists were particularly important, or even good. There were many titles on both lists that I just don’t want to read (although maybe I’d be happily surprised if I did). This is the problem with Googling when you could be, well, reading. I was, however, very glad to see Flannery O’Connor made the Esquire list (unless I missed somebody, the only woman on the list). And while doing my subway research I was happy to catch someone reading Hunter Thompson, arguably the Hemingway of the late 20th Century. I was all the more pleased, as I repositioned myself on the crowded car, to see the face behind the book, to discover that it was a woman reading it. I’m not sure how that figures into the syllogism, but I liked it.