But What Does it DO? Why Men Need Literature

A rare sight, like finding a baby deer in the quiet wilderness.

Author’s Note: It’s come to my attention that The Art of Manliness (you know, the site that this one just supplanted as your go-to destination for all things masculine on the internet) posted a piece about why men should read fiction. Men should read fiction, of course. I’m so sure they should, in fact, that I wrote this essay more than a month ago just so I could express the strength of my feelings on the subject.

The State of Affairs

I’m probably at my most relaxed and happy when I’m doing it alone in my home. Occasionally, I’ll even do it on my front porch. If I’m going to be out of the house for a while, I bring along everything I need, and you might find me doing it on a bench in the mall or even just sitting in a parking lot in my car. I know a lot of people do it in coffee shops, but I think I’d feel self-conscious. I have to do it for my job, sometimes in front of large groups of people. I often have to justify doing it, as though it’s unnatural or bothersome or a waste of perfectly good time and energy. There are, however, a few places (increasingly fewer, truth be told) where I can find people just like me, people who do it at home, at work, on vacation, and, in these wonderful places, right out in the open, unashamed, where everyone can see.

Yes, I love reading literature, and have for as long as I can remember. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, it’s probably a good idea to tell you that I was an English major (Imagine that guy you always saw walking around campus with a satchel slung over his shoulder, wearing glasses he didn’t actually need, carrying a copy of Ulysses, and “journaling” under trees. Got him? Alright, now make him about seven inches taller, lose the glasses, and give him a pretty decent mid-range jumper. That’s me.) and am now an English teacher. Admittedly, I can’t claim to be a “normal” guy when it comes to pontificating about the value of literature in the average man’s life, but frankly, that’s a good thing, because anyone who’s paying attention knows that if you are a “normal” guy, literature probably doesn’t have much value to you in the first place.

Some cursory googling reveals just how dire the situation actually is regarding the sad state of men’s relationship with literature (In fact, the second result for the search “Men and Literature,” is “The 10 Hottest Men in Literature.” Probably not a good sign.). One article by Eric Weiner at NPR recounts a solidly depressing anecdote:

A couple of years ago, British author Ian McEwan conducted an admittedly unscientific experiment. He and his son waded into the lunch-time crowds at a London park and began handing out free books. Within a few minutes, they had given away 30 novels.

Nearly all of the takers were women, who were “eager and grateful” for the freebies while the men “frowned in suspicion, or distaste.” The inevitable conclusion, wrote McEwan in The Guardian newspaper: “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”

Discouraging? Definitely. I’m not sold on the “inevitable conclusion” part yet, but the same article cites surveys indicating that men make up a measly 20% of fiction readers. Bookstore owners reinforce McEwan’s thesis, noting that the men who enter their stores most often head for the non-fiction section, while women buy the large majority of fiction. “So what?” you might say, “Aren’t they still reading?” Well, kind of. The National Endowment for the Arts (if you’re reading this after 2020, the NEA was a government agency that offered support and funding to artists and artistic projects because it felt that “bringing arts to all Americans” was a worthwhile enterprise) estimates that even among avid readers, women – about nine books a year – read twice as much as men – about four or five books a year. So while it’s true that men read books, at least in some capacity, two other (and probably more significant) things are almost definitely also true: Men don’t read a lot, and when they do read, they aren’t reading literature. This is a problem.

The Fix

To understand why it’s such a problem that men aren’t reading Tolstoy or Faulkner or Steinbeck or O’ Connor or Atwood or Orwell, we first have to agree on what literature does, or why it’s valuable. It’s a critical point, because I suspect that the reason most men don’t read a lot of fiction (for my purposes, I’ll probably use “literature” and “fiction” interchangeably, even though I don’t think of them that way, because what constitutes “literature” is a different piece for a different day, and I’m sure WordPress’ servers have a storage limit) is because men tend to be – GENERALIZATION ALERT – more pragmatic creatures. I encounter the argument of practicality often with my male students, who say things like, “I mean, this book was OK, but, like, what was the point?” or, when they hear me offer analysis of this or that literary text, “I think you’re reading into this too much; it’s just a story.”

There’s the rub: since young men don’t often have a clear understanding of literature’s function, they assume the only one it has is to entertain them the way Fox’s Sunday night TV lineup or Michael Bay movies are supposed to. Since they don’t routinely encounter literature that entertains them, they assume that literature doesn’t “work” for them. In their eyes, nothing quantifiable can be derived from reading a book that “didn’t really happen,” and the lack of tangible payoff drives them away.

So back to the question at hand: what does literature do? The best answer I can provide is really an amalgam of answers I’ve cobbled together from reading and listening to what authors and critics have to say on the subject (read: I stole most of what you’re about to read). Fiction’s job is to reveal the capital-T Truth about our lives and the world around us. But it’s not a mirror in the traditional sense. Instead, it reflects back to us the parts of our minds, our hearts, and our souls that we can’t always see clearly without the aid of some tool besides our own eyes or brains. This is also our friends’ job. But before you make a crack about the English major thinking books are his friends, consider your best friends and what is most valuable about them. They call you out when you’re being stubborn or selfish or blind, they offer you advice and support and perspective on everything you’re dealing with, and sometimes, if they’re really great, they make you uncomfortable by asking you questions you didn’t have the courage to ask yourself, or make points concerning critical moral, ethical, and spiritual issues that you hadn’t ever considered (and wouldn’t have, in all likelihood). Literature has the capacity to do all of those things, and if we treat it with respect, that is, if we actively engage with it, it will surprise us again and again by providing insights and challenging the easy preconceptions we so often develop about the world around us.

Let me give you some examples. To Kill a Mockingbird shaped my view of fatherhood and justice. The Grapes of Wrath provided me with a template for empathy. Infinite Jest changed the way I thought about addiction, suicide, and put a much-needed dent in the self-righteous philosophizing I’d done about both topics. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead rattled the way I thought about my faith and the legacy I want to leave for my son. Literature certainly isn’t the only thing that’s shaped me, but its impact has been remarkable.

Engaging with your own mind and spirit regarding the most critical elements of our lives is vital for every person, but I would argue that it is especially vital for men, especially in 2012. Is there any man you can think of who wouldn’t benefit from taking time to consider the plight of a Sudanese refugee and what role perseverance and trust plays in their own life? Any man for whom contemplating the inherent complexities of family relationships and the difficult decisions we must make regarding our loved ones would prove fruitless? We say we want strong, confident men; active, present fathers; and generous, sacrificial husbands, but we simultaneously ignore literature, which by its design is meant to help forge men like these by making them contend with themselves and the world around them.

A Different Sort of Problem

As a Christian, I sometimes encounter a perspective on fiction that is distinct from that discussed above, but which I feel merits some comment. Basically, the argument is this: Since the Bible is the Truth, why seek Truth in secular, fictional books? We Christians should stick to scripture or, at least, books about scripture.

My response is simple, although I’m under no illusions that it’s complete. There is no Truth but that which comes from God, therefore, any Truth (and here we must be discerning, because Truth is sometimes difficult to decipher, especially given our tenuous capacity for recognizing it) that we encounter, be it in Ephesians, in an N.T. Wright book, or Mark Twain, is from the Lord. If we accept that God puts people in our lives for His purposes and calls us to events or places for His purposes, isn’t it foolish to assume that He wouldn’t use literature for His purposes as well?

Consider the following passage from The Grapes of Wrath:

“…I’ll be aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an – I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build, why, I’ll be there. See?”

In these lines, Tom Joad is giving up his personal desires and vocalizing his realization that he is most valuable when he can serve the marginalized, impoverished people devastated by the Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the cruelties of society’s most powerful institutions. When I read this passage for the first time, I nearly wept. I’ve read the book several times since then, and every time I encounter something that challenges my often callous heart for the poor. In those moments, I am much less concerned about John Steinbeck’s intentions than I am God’s intentions. I don’t think it extreme to claim that in that way, reading literature is its own form of worship. Let’s not forget that when Christ taught, he often made his point most recognizable by telling a fictional story to illustrate an elemental Truth*.

Literature has value – whether or not you are a man of faith – not because of what it is, but because of what it does. It challenges us by forcing us to consider alternate perspectives and providing a mirror by which we examine the most important parts of our identities. There are few better ways to spend your time.

So be a man. Put down the remote, set the phone aside, and pick up a book.

*It has come to my attention that my explanation here might be misinterpreted due to a lack of clarity. Let me be clear that I am NOT claiming that scripture and Steinbeck are equal in their capacity to edify us. There is no spiritual substitute for the persistent, active, prayerful reading of God’s word. My claim is only that Truth seeps into extra-scriptural sources, and that to ignore these simply because God himself did not write their content strikes me as throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I will also add that reading literature, to my mind, may only serve as a form of worship assuming that as we read, we are submitting our critical faculties to the Lord, openly seeking his presence in the everyday. In the same way that a custodian submits their duties at work as a service to God might reading literature act in this capacity. As mentioned in the piece, I make no claims as to the completeness of my view. My thoughts were motivated by Colossians 3:17 – “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

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15 Comments on “But What Does it DO? Why Men Need Literature”

  1. Anonymous
    May 5, 2012 at 12:09 pm #

    “In those moments, I am much less concerned about John Steinbeck’s intentions that I am God’s intentions.” Great line, but I think you meant to say “than.”

  2. May 22, 2012 at 10:08 am #

    You make a lot of really important points in this post. In most great writing there is a fundamental generosity and attentiveness towards all the characters which is (or should be) central to the practice of faith. By reading I think we can train ourselves (or at least remind ourselves) to look at the world more generously and with more attention. Reading entails opening yourself up to being challenged and I think the life of faith requires that we are willing to be challenged. And on a very practical point, reading creates a more receptive, perceptive and stable consciousness. I had an awful busy week last week and reading Cannery Row by Steinbeck made me (think and) feel like a person again.

    • joshacorman
      May 22, 2012 at 1:46 pm #

      Good points all, Stephen. I’m really interested in the recent research that indicates how our brains treat what we read. Evidently, our brains light up in the same way whether we are interacting with someone in real life or simply reading about an interaction in a novel. This would seem to lend credence to your point about reading creating “a more receptive, perceptive, and stable consciousness.” It allows us to grapple with so many diverse ideas and perspectives that we are continuously sharpened by it. Thanks for reading and thanks for the great comment!

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