Men, Women, & Reading

Today is my husband’s birthday (Happy Birthday, Jeff!) and that made me think about the differences between men’s and women’s reading tastes.  I was trying to decide which book to give him for his birthday. When I started working at Lake Forest Book Store, our owner, Sue Boucher, gave me a “tour” of the store. The space we occupied at the time was only 1000 square feet, so the tour didn’t take long, but I learned some interesting things along the way. Sue pointed out the “men’s” and “women’s” sections. The men’s, as you might guess, was filled with murder mysteries and spy thrillers, while the women’s shelves contained literary fiction.

I had never given much thought to which books might appeal primarily to men and which might be “women’s” books. I had always dismissed a few authors as men’s authors I didn’t want to read, (such as the recently departed Tom Clancy), but I had always liked all kinds of books and vaguely assumed everyone else was the same.  I knew that my sons didn’t want to read The Babysitters Club series and my daughter wasn’t interested in science fiction, but they had all enjoyed listening to us read Charlotte’s Web, The Witches, the Narnia books, and the Little House books.

Now I was learning to think like a bookseller, not just as an independent reader, and what I learned fascinated me. First of all, I discovered that the differences start early. If a book features a female as the main character, boys, for the most part, won’t read it. However, girls are happy to read about either boys or girls. Why do you think J.K. Rowling wrote about Harry Potter, not Helen Potter? Yes, Hermione is a smart and independent girl, but she’s still a sidekick. Do boys want to read about “the girl who lived”? This difference carries through to adulthood — it’s a rare male reader, in my experience,  who is interested in reading a novel featuring a female character.

Over the years, I found that another generalization held true — boys and men are more interested in novels featuring action, humor, and factual information than they are in books about love, family relationships, and young people coming of age.  And men are much more interested in nonfiction than women. If you tell a woman a work of nonfiction “reads like a novel”, that’s a great selling point —  but it’s not necessarily for a man. I wonder why elementary school teachers insist that boys read fiction, when so many of them would much prefer to read a sports biography or a factual book about war? Is the literary value of any novel greater than the literary value of nonfiction?

TheBoysintheBoatAnyway, I finally decided not to get my husband another book. I looked at his nightstand and realized I had already provided him with enough reading to take him through 2013 and well into 2014. (By the way, he’s not a fan of mysteries or spy thrillers — but he does love history.) He’s now reading The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown — which was my favorite book from the last few months.  Everyone knows about Jesse Owens’s famous victory at the 1936 Olympics, but how many know about the University of Washington crew team’s win?

This is a perfect book for both men and women — if you’re looking for a book to share with your spouse, this is the one.  On the surface, it’s an underdog sports story in the vein of Seabiscuit or The Greatest Game Ever Played,  but it’s much more than a sports book. The “boys in the boat” were the nine students at the University of Washington (eight rowers and one coxswain) who overcame obstacle after obstacle to defeat the Germans at the 1936 Olympics. The fact that they were attending college at all was a miracle — almost all of them were from dirt-poor families struggling to feed their families during the Depression. One of the boys was actually abandoned by his family and had to forage in the woods for food. This book hooked me from the first page, when Daniel James Brown describes his first meeting with his neighbor, Joe Rantz (one of the legendary nine):

I knew only two things about Joe when I knocked his daughter Judy’s door that day. I knew that in his mid-seventies he had singlehandedly hauled a number of cedar logs down a mountain, then hand-split the rails and cut the posts and installed all 2,224 linear feet of the pasture fence I had just climbed over — a task so herculean I shake my head in wonderment whenever I think about it. And I knew he had been one of nine young men from the state of Washington — farm boys, fishermen, and loggers — who shocked both the rowing world and Adolf Hitler by winning the gold medal in eight-oared rowing at the 1936 Olympics.

It’s a thrilling story, even though the outcome is known from page one. The personalities involved, the historical context, and the details about rowing and boatbuilding all combine to create a multi-dimensional narrative. It’s an inspirational story as well; Brown starts  each chapter of The Boys in the Boat  with a quotation by George Pocock, the British-born boatbuilder and unofficial coach and guru to the University of Washington crew. The final quotation in the book is posted in the boathouse at the University of Washington:

Harmony, balance, rhythm. There you have it. That’s what life is all about.

Link to a video of the famous race, complete with a German announcer: