Archive for July, 2008

If you can read this

Posted in literally happened, telling it like it is on July 17, 2008 by samsondoggie

On Saturday, I rode about 100 kilometers through the rolling Piedmont hills of Orange, Durham, Chatham, and Alamance Counties. How lovely. At least, it was lovely until about 61 miles down the road, when my left thigh had a few spasms.

You get a long time to talk when you do one of those rides. The relevant stuff gets used up, pretty fast. Especially among men. I mean, what is there really to say?

In a moment of abandon, I mentioned that I had seen a good movie recently, Margot at the Wedding, and how more good movies like that should be made. The quality I liked about it was the nuance of the characterizations. It was hard to know if Nicole Kidman was really all bad, or if her sister was also a bit at fault for the gap in their relationship. One of the big events is when the Jennifer Jason Leigh character tells a secret to Nicole Kidman, but then Kidman’s character spreads it around to her son and some others. So, perhaps that gives you a sense of the dramatic heft going on here.

Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you can guess that this is definitely within the realm of a chick-flick. In spite of having Jack Black. Normally, the presence of Jack Black makes a movie an automatic guy flick (High Fidelity, Nacho Libre, Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny…need I go on?)

But Margot is a good movie. And how satisfying to bring home a Jack Black movie with a straight face! Now, I think that more movies should come from good books. It is kind of hard to imagine things going the other way. And, they have, I thought, as I pedaled.

I looked over at Tim. “What about all of those great Graham Greene books that became movies?” I said.

Tim shifted one of his great down-tube shifters. He looked over and squinted. I could hear the hum of our wheels.

“Graham Greene?” he said. “You are going to have to help me.”

As in, “who?” It was just a collective loss. Tim is ABD’s. And he was just like the rest of the crowd on the ride that day — people with degrees from elite universities, or like myself, from a moderately decent college and whatever state university graduate school that would take me for a while. People who should recognize that name. These are the kind of comments that give E.D. Hirsch a reason to write more right-wing stuff.

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Now, Graham Greene is hardly an elite sort of author. The reason his books got made into movies is because they were so approachable, and their topics were so universal: rage, jealousy, deceit, shame, dishonor, regret. Good stuff. I remember when Graham Greene died, because I was in England at the time. It was the written-in-black-ink headline for the Evening Standard. What kind of paper is the Evening Standard? Well, today’s headline is “20 Knife Fights Per Day in London.” So, its based upon facts, but it is hardly elevated reading. Graham Greene was a hero in that city, and his death was widely felt.

I proposed to my friends that we read The End of the Affair. Its a good story, with plenty of intrigue. It was a movie in the 90s. And, I thought, let’s talk about it over that great British meal, the pint.

No luck. Let’s go biking, they said.

Now if it is okay to acknowledge the genre of the chick-flick, it is worth also pointing out that there is a missing submarket within books — guy fiction. This is an issue. Reading is not that popular any more, but among the remaining readers of fiction, few are men. Men read “Bush at War,” or “How I made A Million Bucks.” When they are reading fiction, and not “Maxim.

Somebody asked 400 men and 400 women to name a book that changed their lives. The people were all between 20 and 50. The women contributed a variety of books. You could go into detail wondering about the significance of those choices.  What is important is that the women had books in their lives that made a difference in their own development.  They were passionate about stories.

Graham Greene’s book have that quality. There is a passage in The End of the Affair where he asks why people can assume an anthropomorphic God, but reject the notion of such a devil. No, he says, there are plenty of devils, people like this private investigator who is ruining my memory of a past love.

But about that study. For the men, it was different. They couldn’t name a book that changed their life. Many of the men attacked the question: How could a book do that? What do you mean? Is this a joke? Some refused to name one. Some picked a work of non-fiction.  The report suggested that for men, the best kind of book was a manual.  How to fix a camera, or how to acquire a Russian bride, or mow the lawn.

When they did name a book of fiction, it was the kind of thing you read when people were forcing you to do it — in high school. Again, it was Lord of the Flies, The Hobbit, or maybe The Catcher in the Rye. Maybe you will not be surprised to find out that the most popular work of fiction, among men, is one about alienation: The Outsider, by Albert Camus.

Wait, is the stuff in Maxim fiction? Or will I really get abs like that if I drink that sport drink?

Here is a list of books that men like to read. And there are some classics, like Slaughter-House Five or The Lord of the Flies. There is even a nonprofit group out there trying to work on the problem. Its called “Real Men Read.” NPR has its own thoughts about the situation.

My own personal experience, outside of our bike group, is that reading has a long way to go before it captures the attention of more men. Maybe there could be some ringtones, or something. I belong to Good Reads, a social networking site where you can share books that you enjoy. Its a good site. I think you should join. Here’s my lament: Whenever I list a new favorite book, it lists the other people who feel the same way. Here’s such a list from one of my recent additions:

Sretsvana, Annie, Devisari, Barbara, Martine, Icha, Evelyn, SnackyWombat, Maggie, Sarah, Ina, Mae, Animesh, Janice, Pamela, Kimberly, Pamela, Adarsh, Dominic, Danny, Barbra, Monique, Jan, Preeta, Juliet.

Come on….

What is more odd, though, is that most of the big prizes for literature are made up of committees whose members are mostly men. Consider recent slates of judges for the following prizes: Booker Prize (60 percent male), Pulitzer Prize (71 percent male), National Book Awards (60 percent male), and PEN/Faulkner (67 percent.)

An exception is the National Book Critics Circle Award, whose 23 member panel consists of 11 men and 12 women.

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