Men and the Written Word
Posted November 15, 2009on:
by Robin, Philly
This is a topic I’ve been thinking about for a long time and have had a hard time drawing decisive conclusions about. At this point I’ve been noticing it consistently for about 2 and a half years, though, and I think it’s time to throw my thoughts out there to hear what other people think. (And when I say people, I mean, women, trans and gender variant people, and MAYBE some dudes if you’re gonna do something other than get defensive.)
What is up with men and books? So many activist men I know have read about a billion books. All about leftist history and anarchism/communism and racism and sexism, apparently. I’m not trying to say women don’t read books, but to be honest, most of my female friends read much fewer books than the males I know, and they are more likely to read fiction.
Personally, I read maybe 3 books a year. It’s not that I don’t like to read – I read a lot. But I read short things – zines and magazines and blog entries. Sometimes newspapers and online news sites. But I just don’t read a lot of books! I never feel like I have enough time to commit to reading a whole book. I start them and never finish them; I get busy with other things. The books I am able to most successfully complete are anthologies, collections of essays, zine compilations. If the book is broken up into small parts I can read in half an hour or less, I am about 100% more likely to finish it than a full length book. Logically, of course, I recognize that I could just read part of a chapter and put the book down, but I don’t do this. I think I get a mental block because the very idea of committing to reading a whole book is just too intimidating. (I should add that up until about age 13 I read full length books all the time, no problem.)
I wonder sometimes if this is just a product of being of the “MTV generation” – I’m so used to watching 10 second advertisements and music videos that cut back and forth that I have permanently damaged my attention span. It’s possible. But, if this is the only issue, then why do my male peers seem less affected? I think there is something more going on.
I have developed three hypothesis so far:
1. Most books are still written by men. The publishing industry is notoriously sexist. The majority of books being published are going to appeal to men. (And in the instance of historical books especially, most history is written from a straight white male perspective about and appealing to straight white men.)
2. Men are (in general) more encouraged to pursue academic interests. This would explain why men not only read more, but tend to favor non-fiction, and, in the case of my radical friends, tend to read a lot of movement histories, history in general, political ideological texts, and other academic stuff.
3. Men have more free time to devote to reading because they do not have to spend time addressing their gender oppression. This is the hardest one for me to justify, because I know many men are still oppressed in other ways (class, race, sexuality, etc.) But I’m still putting it out there.
I think #3 can play out in infinite ways. In my own life, I know that I really do spend a good deal of time processing and analyzing the gendered interactions I have and trying to understand why I feel so fucking crazy when I interact with men. I also waste a lot of time anxiously worrying that I have upset men or not pleased them appropriately. [I say this, obviously, as a radical feminist who knows that shit is fucked up, but it takes TIME to uproot internalized patriarchy. I'm working on it.] When I was talking to my friend Sam about this once, she suggested that men are more likely to blow off responsibilities in order to just relax and read a book, whereas women have been socialized to feel that we must be responsible for not only ourselves but others and feel guilty blowing off responsibilities to spend time for ourselves.
I think what is hard for me about this issue is – it’s not men’s fault, and they’re not doing anything actively wrong. Of course I don’t think reading books is a bad thing. I think it’s a really really great thing. But, it gets on my fucking nerves!! First of all, I am so over going to political events where men are know-it-alls about leftist ideologies and movement histories and always get to be the “teachers”. They casually name drop Chomsky and Freire and seem surprised when not everyone has read their entire works. I call myself an anarchist and before that I called myself a socialist, but I’ve never read any texts about either ideology. I’ve never read any Marx, or Chomsky, or any… whoever. And I don’t care!! I don’t need to read a book to know I’m an anarchist. I came to my political beliefs through my lived experiences and put a name to them when I met other people with similar beliefs who called themselves anarchists. Honestly, the labels are meaningless to me, all I care about are the beliefs people hold, which don’t need a name to exist and be valid.
image from my zine “Do’s and Don’ts for the Dudely Organizer” *
The other thing that pisses me off is when some awesome new feminist book is published or recommended, and my male friends read it before I can. This has happened to me SO MANY TIMES!! I own books that I have lent to male friends and that they returned to me over a year ago and that I STILL have not read myself. It just isn’t fair! These books are actually relevant to my life and might help me better understand my experiences, but they’re being read (and reviewed and recommended via facebook and Goodreads) by men!
Of COURSE I want men to read books about feminism. I think it’s critical. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling frustrated when another dude posts a review of some bell hooks book that’s been on my to-do list for 16 months.
So, I just ranted a whole lot…but do I have any solutions?
The only thing I’ve come up with so far is a trade system. Like, men take some of their extra time they would spend reading, and offer to do some kind of work (cooking a meal, cleaning a bathroom, volunteering somewhere) that a woman would normally do, and instead she gets a couple extra hours to spend reading.
I also think women can work to encourage each other to read more, through reading groups and just generally talking about books more with one another. (Though it is important not to do this to the point of alienating people who don’t read much.)
Also, to go along with “men and books”, I have also noticed my male friends have a lot more time for WRITING as well as reading. Practically every leftist man I know has a personal blog.** I know several men who have had their writing published in leftist magazines, books, and on websites, but hardly any women. The one time I wrote something to be published on a website, a male SDSer was the one who set me up with the connection. I assume men write/publish more for the same reason they seem to read more.
So, what do you all think? Do you notice this pattern in your friends too? What do you think about challenging men to trade off some of their reading time to give it to women?
* When I wrote this cartoon, I literally just made up the babble by stringing together a bunch of words and names I’d heard activist dudes use. Since publishing the zine, several people have asked me if Chomsky really wrote something analyzing Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Not that I know of, but I’m not likely to know since I’ve never read PoO or anything by Chomsky.
** I just thought I’d throw in that the idea for the womyn’s caucus blog was born one night when my friend and former SDSer Tyneisha and I were drinking wine and lamenting the ratio of radical female friends with blogs to male friends with blogs – and I am so happy we set this up, I know I wouldn’t blog without it!