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Sunday, April 09, 2006

Gender and reading

So did y'all go read Laura's most excellent post on the recent studies on the books that women and men say changed their lives?

(Tapping foot impatiently.) Well, go read it. Read the links, too. I'll wait.

I think this is just fascinating. Not so much the lists of books themselves -- the women's list, and the men's list. Both lists offer lots of scope for observation and argument. (For example, I'd say that the women's list suggests that Madeleine L'Engle is not as widely read in the UK as she is in North America.) What's fascinating is the very idea of first asking the questions, "How do you use books? What do books mean to you?" And then examining the results by gender. One of the bloggers that Laura links to dismisses the whole enterprise with more irritation than cause, I think. Just because the preliminary answer you receive isn't the one you wanted to hear doesn't necessarily mean the question is an invalid one.

How do we use books? It's not news to learn that women are more likely to forge social connections over books -- discuss them, recommend them, lend them to friends. Book clubs have historically been a mostly female enterprise in the US*. I'd guess that most of us who have been involved in book clubs in the recent past have found that women make up the largest share of participants. Why is this? What is it about books that brings us together? Those of us who have been kicking around the pixie party for awhile have noticed that by far the largest number of comments (outside of the whiners' ball, of course) come when we're discussing books, whether it's the latest meme, the Murry v. Austin Super Bowl, or the venerable Harry Potter spoiler thread.** In my own statistically significant n=pixies observations, I've noticed that, with the exception of the Harry Potter discussion, the book threads around here tend to be even more disproportionately female than our regular (overwhelmingly female) discussion.

Part of why this interests me so much is that a lot of my reading habits are more "male" than "female." I don't read a lot of fiction, and I've never felt hugely comfortable with discussing what I read in public settings. I've spent a lot of my life as a fish out of water, hanging out with people from working-class backgrounds whose levels of education are lower than mine. In comparison, my own reading choices have seemed to me aggressively snobbish in their idiosyncrasy. When I did jury duty -- in Cambridge, no less -- I brought Fernand Braudel to pass the time; everyone else brought Dan Brown. When I helped facilitate a book group briefly during my stint at a bookstore, I was too sheepish to suggest any recommendations, except once -- and the other people hated the book I chose. It wasn't a difficult book -- quite the opposite, it was crossover children's/adult fiction -- but I wasn't surprised to learn yet again that almost nobody shares my taste. So it's always seemed more considerate to keep my mouth shut about what I read.

I also wonder how much of my hesitation to discuss books comes from my upbringing. Given my mother's habit of feeding me books that were highly inappropriate for my age, I was encouraged not to discuss my reading matter -- and a lot of other family business -- outside the home. To the extent that my mom was interested in discussing books with me, those conversations tended to be at least as traumatizing as the reading of the books themselves. I quickly learned to keep my reading as private as possible. It is probably indicative of the imperatives operating in my family that my parents learned that I could read from my grandma. Apparently I was keeping it a secret from them.

Back to the discussion of male v. female reading patterns as identified by the Orange research project. They discovered that men were much more likely to judge a book based on their perception of how it was gendered, with an extremely marked reluctance to read anything considered feminine. Women were more likely to be omnivorous in their reading habits, and less interested in assigning a perceived gender to a book. In fact, it was my father who first informed me that there were "boys' books" and "girls' books." He wanted me to read some of his childhood favorites, like Mark Twain and the Hardy Boys, but couldn't bring himself to give them to me without explaining first that I wouldn't like them because they were "boys' books." It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, of course: I didn't like the books he presented to me with such a billing, though I enjoyed any number of other books that were probably targeted at boys, like The Three Investigators series. I wonder if today's kids will feel slightly differently about the concept of gendered reading, given that boys and girls alike have been through the communal experience of reading Harry Potter?

The researchers also note that for
men, reading fiction is mainly a way of passing the time and of relaxing. Compared to women they rarely talk about books to people, or even borrow them from friends , and they are much more inclined to read non-fiction for self-improvement, etc.
I wonder to what extent this reflects men's and women's differing perception of what constitutes "self-improvement." I would posit that women are more likely to consider fiction a means to self-improvement, because it offers an avenue for learning more about relationships and the inner workings of human thought and emotion. These are things that women have been, by and large, trained to value. Consciously or unconsciously, we have been trained to view it as our responsibility to tend to the ebb and flow of human intercourse. I know that in my own life, I stopped reading fiction for anything more than entertainment when I reached a point in my life at which I felt I had figured out what I needed to know to find and maintain the relationships that made me happy. Before that, when I was trying to sort out how the world beyond my family worked, I read fiction voraciously, and felt that it had much to teach me. Only after I felt that I had achieved some basic competence in that regard could I move on to reading nonfiction, and what it has to teach me about the outer world. (Though my favorite nonfiction works -- by authors like Rebecca West, Anne Fadiman, Melissa Fay Greene -- bridge the divide, managing to concern themselves both with the inner life and the outer world.)

Another n=1 observation to challenge the gender roles above, though. My father reads nonfiction (like the stereotypical "male" reader) and mysteries for pleasure. But he quite consciously seeks out mysteries that broaden his horizons in much the same way that the stereotypical "female" reader does -- he looks for mysteries whose settings and protagonists are far from his own personal experiences, allowing him to imaginatively enter the worlds of communities that are "other" to him. I remember how excited he was, for example when I found him Joseph Hansen's books featuring a gay male protagonist. But I wonder if he would admit that to someone trying to survey his responses to literary fiction?

Next up in the Post of Substance queue: some of my watershed books.

* I was looking for access to scholarly journals because I wanted to fact-check this assertion before I made it. I found enough material to make me feel confident about saying it -- but I also concluded that such sources, since they are unlinkable, are fairly useless to the making of bloggy discourse. The whole point of hypertext is to be able to allow *you* to read the references, too, at least in my opinion.

** Y'all know that old comments are still there to be read, even after the Haloscan link reads "Where are the commenting pixies?" again, right?



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