Monday, August 28, 2006

SB Day: The Guy Edition (Part One)

On this Smart Bitches Day I think we should give some thought to men. Male readers that is. AOL has an article up from Business Week Online about the secrets of the male shopper, apparently advertisers have been missing up to one half of the male buying public in their campaign to get us to all spend, spend, spend! Whether new selling tactics can be applied to draw in this other half of male shoppers and turn in them into readers, I don’t know. The politics and gender biases (when it comes to male readers) start so young that I’m not sure a simple change in advertising would make a difference.

At Least He’s Reading

Over and over again in my years of bookselling, I’ve heard the same refrain from mothers about their sons: “At least he’s reading.”

I hear it when they hand over ten dollars for the latest Naruto manga or car magazine. I hear it even as they make a face at the Star Wars tie in or any book that does not have the award of approval glittering on its surface. Even as they praise the child for trying, they denigrate his reading choices. The subtext is clear, “Thank God he’s reading, but does he have to be reading that?”

First of all, there is no “at least” about it. Reading, even if it advertisements on a cereal box or the articles in Playboy, is reading. You are actively engaged in comprehending the meaning of words and how they affect the meaning of a sentence. You are absorbing sentence structure and word choice and you might even be learning a thing or two.

Yes, some writing might be less complex than others, but complex does not necessarily mean better. The Da Vinci Code might not have been top rate literature, but it managed to get a lot of people—specifically in this instance male people—to enjoy a book where previous they found reading for pleasure an oxymoron. For some of these people the Da Vinci Code acted like a gateway drug to other books, ones with more complex structures or mysteries. Suddenly these guys who before might have simply played a video game or watched television found they could enjoy the written word and discovered that it could be just as exciting as a visual stimulus.

But why did they lose this ability in the first place?

He’s Just Not a Reader

Time and again this scenario plays out the same: a mother enters the store with her two children, a boy and a girl. The girl heads to one fiction section or another with the mom, while the boy loiters around the video game magazines. Mom and daughter will eventually wander back up to the counter with a stack of books, complaining that they would have found more, but the boy has expressed his boredom and wants to leave. Why is he bored?

“Well, he’s just not a reader.”

Why not? Is this just a male thing? Surely not. Every day half of my customers are business men buying business books, fiction, or Scifi; men in their forties or older who enjoy the written word and what it can teach them. I have men in their sixties and seventies stopping in to buy books while their wives shop, so they have something to do while sitting on the bench out in the mall. My own father, while not much of a fiction reader, sits down with the newspaper every day and has been known to be irrational fond of fact books (like the Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader series).

Maybe it’s a generational thing. My brother dislikes reading except for the occasional magazine (or Bathroom Reader, it’s an addiction—this thirst for trivial facts). To my knowledge, his only voluntary book reading has been with the Harry Potter series, and even then he stopped at book five and has shown no interest in continuing. Part of this may stem from the fact that he learned to read late. In third grade we learned he was reading at barely a first grade level and that his teachers didn’t notice because he wasn’t a problem child. This could have been my fate as well had I not had so much one on one reading time as a child: being the first born I benefited from my mother’s full attention, I went to a co-op kindergarten that was heavily reading based, and I had an excellent volunteer in my grade school who spent time reading with individual children each day. Basically I was given the best of that reading and reading comprehension teaching had to offer.

My brother didn’t experience any of this, and when his reading problem was discovered everyone blamed it on development issues instead of falling through the educational cracks. He had hand/eye tracking problems (something my mother realized was bull shit when she looked at how well he preformed with video games and sports) we were told. He just needs tutoring that needs to be paid for out of pocket and on his own time. Reading became something he had to work out, something he was told he was not good at.

Reading became the enemy because it was hard and it was work. Reading for enjoyment did not exist for my bro, it was something he had to do so that he could later play video games or go outside and play. The concept of choosing a book over Mario or taking one along with him into the fields did not occur to him, even though this was something that he saw my mother and I do constantly. Obviously he observed that we got enjoyment out of the process, but he that didn’t mean he wanted to give it a try.


The rant continued in SB Day: The Guy Edition (Part Two).


Anonymous said...

BSC, I wonder the same thing. Is it a matter of expectations? I heard one mother complaining that all her 11-year-old son wants to do is read, and that she wishes he'd go outside and make friends. I never hear people complain about girls holing up in their rooms to read all day. So maybe it's the parents as much as the kids.

I also think there are simply more books aimed at girls than at boys. But some of the "boy books" out there are so great--from Be More Chill by Ned Vizzini to The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.

Then there are crossover books like Harry Potter and The Series of Unfortunate Events. Because there are strong boy and girl characters, everybody's happy.

And the fact that you see so many adult men buying so many books tells us that at some point they become comfortable reading what they want to read. It might be sports trivia or business motivation books or SF.

Which brings me back to my original question: are parents of boys part of the problem? I know my nephew would happily sit and read a book about sharks or snakes anytime (especially if there were great and gruesome pictures), but there's no way he'd pick up a chapter book on his own. Does that mean "he's not much of a reader"? Or just that he likes what he likes, and it's our job to give it to him?

pacatrue said...

There are just so many complex issues here. I was a reader myself as a child. At least, I was one of those kids in 5th grade reading at the designated "12th grade level" if those levels mean anything. Despite that, for several years as an adult I rarely read fiction. I think this partially (but only partially) has to do with the literature being published.

It seems like since about the 20s that there has been an increasing divorce between fiction for entertainment and fiction as literature. My absolute favorite books are the ones that are simultaneously pop entertainment for guys and solid lit as well. Robin already mentioned "The Count of Monte Cristo" which is a book I re-read in all its 1000 page glory about every two years. I even bought it in French though I don't read French yet. I also love Jan Potocki's The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, which combines ghosts, countesses, threesomes, and duels with one of the most complicated literary structures around.

But I don't know of stuff like this being published now. Until recently when I finally got back into contemporary lit, when I did read, it was usually some epic fantasy. I enjoyed these for fun and adventure, but they aren't usually stories that really stick with you for more than a few days. this meant that for me the complete reading experience was always a little lacking.

... said...

I heard one mother complaining that all her 11-year-old son wants to do is read, and that she wishes he'd go outside and make friends. I never hear people complain about girls holing up in their rooms to read all day. So maybe it's the parents as much as the kids.

Maybe my family is just strange, but my mom (and other relatives) used to do the same thing to me because all I ever wanted to do was read.

My brothers read quite a bit, but less than I do. Brother #1 (only because he's older) reads less than Brother #2, who is dyslexic and has a little bit of a harder time with it, but likes to read anyway. Both of them seem drawn to mostly scifi/fantasy and sometimes historical fiction. They've read Harry Potter (though they were reading before it became famous), Series of Unfortunate Events, LOTR, etc.

It might have something to do with being read to or encouraged to read as a kid. Apparently my mom used to read to me a lot when I was younger; I don't remember it, though. But she's had less time for my sister, who's the youngest and doesn't read nearly as much as me or my brothers (I don't know how much time was spent with them reading).

Anonymous said...

As a kid, I never had a TBR pile because I was constantly working through the pile, reading 6 or 7 books at once. It used to drive my dad crazy because he was a one-at-a-time reader (a big reader, nonetheless). Even my somewhat less intellectual mom is a big reader. My older brother is the only one of the family who reads infrequently.

I don't have an answer to your question -- I really can't relate to the mindset you describe. My main regret is not having enough time to read.

Diane P said...

As a reading teacher I see many of the boys that will not or can not read. I will do anything (jump up & down) to get them to read. They love HOLES, THUNDER CAVE, JAGUAR, anything by Roland Smith. I have to argue with our librarian to get her to order more of these book sets. I don't care if they are all one genre if these boys will read, I will jump up & down.

On the other hand in our family, my daughters & I read all the time, novels. My husband reads all the time, non-fiction. I have only seen him read 2 books in 32 years. He is very happy with his reading material as I am with mine. I can't complain because he is reading.

So is that a market that is untapped? I don't know, I just want everyone reading.

Anonymous said...

I believe it's a combination of family, educational environment, and other (external) factors. Cultural crap, too, those biases from how people talk and subconsciously steer kids. I know lots of male "readers," though; but I'm part of the SF/F crowd, and I'm in a GLBT SF/S/H group that has more active men than women; my experience must be atypical in a bunch of ways.

Diane P: Hmm, sounds like you have a bias in favour of fiction & against non-fiction.... ;-)

But that makes me wonder, why does everyone have to be a reader? (Heresy! Burn him at the stake!) Tastes differ in what we get enjoyment out of -- so what? And yet...I think everyone should readreadread!!! Heh, I guess I wouldn't be reading this interesting post if I didn't have a bias in favour of reading. ;-) (Though I don't, I believe, have a bias against non-reading activities.)

none said...

The child's brain seeks out the activities appropriate to their gender (whatever those may be in their culture). So, (reducing a complex process to a simple statement) seeing females reading is not going to encourage a boy to read.

lady t said...

I have to agree with Robin about the parents-may a time,I saw mothers and fathers pushing books on boys which clearly didn't interest them but in Mom and Dad's eyes were"good". One time in a Borders store,my sister and I overheard a mom telling her son that the book he selected(it may have been a Captain Underpants book or some other series)wasn't one that she"wanted to read with him." Uh,shouldn't it be about what HE wants to read?

Then the boy's father chimed in(out of boredom,it sounded like)and kept insisting that the kid read Treasure Island,repeating over and over that"it's a classic." Ten to one,Dad never read TI,just wanted to be sure that the boy had a book his mom approved of. I do think it's fine that parents take an interest in what their kids read but they should keep an open mind and let him/her develop their own tastes,not just spoon feed them something that makes them look good.