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10 Reasons Why Men Must Start Reading Fiction Again

November 25, 2013

humphrey bogart readingAccording to recent statistics, men have all but stopped reading fiction. Do they watch great television? Yes. Do they read non-fiction? Some. But the novel – that great interior journey – seems to have been lost to them.

It wasn’t always this way.

The path from boyhood to manhood used to go something like this: Boys got dirty, played with plastic guns, disturbed bee hives, and wandered the streets of their neighborhoods with their buddies un-chaperoned. By adolescence, they were expected to be rowdy and wild – maybe dabbling in the rebel art of cigarette smoking, drawing a sharpie tattoo, and practicing the skill of talking girls into peeling off their panties (beginning with the whole “I’ll give you a cookie” approach and graduating to “Come on, baby, you’re just so beautiful –I need you!”).

Next, somewhere in their twenties, boys began dressing like men – assertively and with a sense of style that wasn’t strictly reserved for gay men and the odd metrosexual. A man learned how to play poker, how to dance, and how to unzip a dress.james bond reads

Oh, and one more thing…a man read fiction.

In short, until fairly recently -sometime in the mid to late 1980s, I estimate – the kind of man boys aspired to be was culturally literate.

Playboy and Esquire used to feature fiction every month and a large cross-section of men felt compelled to read the latest by William Styron or Raymond Carver. Your average college-educated male knew damned well who won the Pulitzer and had an opinion as to who really should have gone home with the prize (even if he got that opinion from some other guy in a locker room).clint eastwood reading

But nowadays it’s the women’s publications like Elle and Oprah that feature Joan Didion, Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen. Men’s magazines have gone all Cosmo on us – Get Great Abs! Make Her Scream In Bed – For Real!

It is estimated some 80% of fiction readers today are women. The men who still read novels are to a large extent either thriller readers (i.e. troglodytes according to the cultured class) or soft, overly-sensitive men who read Margaret Atwood novels and feel a woman’s pain so acutely they need to go lie down.

A close male friend of mine – an extremely intelligent and otherwise cultured man – actually said he doesn’t read fiction because it’s “unserious.”

So, without further ado, here are my ten most persuasive arguments for why men need to start reading fiction again – STAT!

10. Fiction teaches you how to think rather than merely what to think, and this is one of the crucial differences between a leader and a follower. No matter how well done, TV and film do too much of the work for you. The curve of a woman’s face isn’t merely alluded to or described, but shown up close and often on an actress you’ve seen a dozen times in a similar role. A line is delivered the way the actor interprets the dialogue. But when we read, we are the interpreters, the masters of the experience.

9. It will make you better at your job.Why? Because good fiction, unlike the platitude-ridden business self-help genre, examines the way real human beings behave and react in a variety of situations. Want to understand the mind of a change-averse bureaucrat? Read James Thurber’s The Catbird Seat. Or how about the maneuverings of a power-hungry subordinate? Iago from Othello will give you something to chew on. And if you want to read about a boss who feels threatened by a talented subordinate, pick up my husband’s novel, Corporate America (#2 thriller on Amazon – what a man!). If you’re still shaking your head and don’t quite believe that fiction can help you succeed in your career, just take a look at Silicon Valley, where the most popular business book is The Fountainhead. Novel-reading seems to be working pretty well for all those billionaires over there.

8. Since so few men are reading fiction right now, you can claim some of the best literary quotes as your own and your (male) friends and colleagues will think you’re a genius!

7. Literature adds to reality. It does not simply describe it. (See? #8 works! And you thought I made that up, didn’t you? It was actually CS Lewis.) Nonfiction, the average male reader’s favorite “literature”, can teach you a great many things – like a cadaver can illuminate you about your body. But it cannot caress you with a turn of phrase, start a fire of heroic ideals, make you fall in love with the mortifying, saccharine emotion of a Harlequin Romance. Only fiction can do that.

6. Fiction can raise your testosterone levels. There is plenty of “men’s” literature that has an erotic element but doesn’t get all Fifty Shades on you. Anything by Milan Kundera can teach you about the art of seduction. What guy wouldn’t want to command a hot nurse to take off her clothes the way Tomas did in The Unbearable Lightness of Being? The Uncle Oswald books by Roald Dahl are also great literary rolls in the hay. If you want something stronger and are actually looking for erotica, read some of my friend TW Luedke’s books. They are every bit as dangerous as popping wheelies on a motorcycle.

5. Reading will make you a better citizen. Stories – not sound bytes – help you absorb politics in a way the punditocracy can’t. If you’re right leaning, Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand will far better help you elucidate and express your heartfelt opinions than the pseudo-populists at Fox. If you’re left leaning? Try Upton Sinclair in place of the smarty-pants faux intellectuals at MSNBC.

4. To surrender your influence on the cultural landscape and on education – both of which are shaped in large part by fiction and fiction readers (i.e. women)- is simply wimpy.

3. Because in reading fiction, we are able to absorb a greater truth instead of an assemblage of facts. This is true when comparing the novel to the non-fiction book or to the film or television show. The difference between fiction and non-fiction is the difference between learning morals and learning manners. One will get you through a dinner party and the other will get you through life (and perhaps even the afterlife). The difference between reading a story and watching one on TV is the difference between making love to the love of your life and having a friend with benefits. Not knocking the latter, but…

2. The spoken and written word in the form of a fictional story has been as important, historically, in a man’s life journey as sports, trolling with friends, and becoming the master of his destiny. The novel has been an unfailing aid in his evolution – in learning to love, becoming a husband and a father, being a friend. Doing what is right and understanding the consequences of shirking his morals and ethics.

1. It’ll get you the women you want. And not just the ones who’ll have you.

If you don’t know where to even start – let me help you:

A Fable by William Faulkner
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Slaughter House Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Macbeth, Henry V by William Shakespeare (yes, Shakespeare – don’t be a wuss)
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
Corporate America by Jack Dougherty (trust me, this is not just love talkin’ here)
The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole

Come on! Snoop Dogg does it. Now it’s your turn. What is the novel you think every man should read? snoop dog reading

99 Comments
  1. If I could suggest both of my books, “Jupiter Chronicles” and “Haven of Dante” primarily because they both deal with absent fathers and how that affects kids feelings about themselves and their dads.

    • Thank you, Leonardo, but could you also suggest what novel meant something to you? Perhaps a book you read in High School that inspired you to become a writer?

  2. John Dolan permalink

    The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
    The Outsider by Albert Camus
    The Blue Afternoon by William Boyd
    The Quiet American by Graham Greene
    The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

    The thing all these novels have in common? They show us that it is through our emotions that we create a life worth living, not through our logic and reasoning.

  3. Sabbath’s Theater x P.Roth

  4. Barry Henderson permalink

    Pale Fire by Nabokov
    Cat’s Cradle by Vonnegut
    Heart of Darkness by Conrad
    MTK

  5. Andy permalink

    A Separate Peace. Ordinary People. For Whom the Bell Tolls. Lord of the Rings. Ender’s Game.

  6. Dennis Moran permalink

    The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham, a compelling portrait of some of the contrasting values people choose in this world.
    Shakespeare inspired me in college, tremendously, hard to pick just one
    To Kill a Mockingbird
    The Little Prince
    Light in August
    Portrait in Sepia, Isabel Allende

  7. All these novels I am about to list are books that grabbed my attention, made me think, made me feel, had me contemplating ideas that were new-strange, and questions of morality, ethics, religion and philosophy:

    The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (scifi)

    The Stand by Stephen King (horror)

    The Dark Tower Series by Stephen King (horror/fantasy/scifi)

    The Odd Thomas Series by Dean Koontz (paranormal thriller)

    The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A Heinlein (scifi)

    Red Gold by Alan Furst (historical WWII fiction)

    The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (literary scifi)

    Hyperion by Dan Simmons (space opera scifi)

    Memnoch the Devil by Anne Rice (Christian horror)

    And, the book that led me down the road to dark, sensual fiction:

    Skin Trade by Laurell K. Hamilton (Erotic Urban Fantasy)

    I could go on and on and on. Just scratching the surface here.
    :)

  8. RAG permalink

    You don’t even have to go with classics – there’s great contemporary fiction being written by (and dare I say FOR?) men?

    ** This is How You Lose Her – linked short stories by Junot Diaz; electric, jazzy, funny and – if you stop to think about it even for a moment – heartbreakingly insightful about what it means to be a sucio
    ** The Art of Fielding – coming of age novel by Chad Harbach – what if you were the greatest baseball talent of your generation in college – then lost it?
    ** Freedom by Jonathan Frazen – the whole GW Bush era wrapped up in one brililant novel
    And honestly – the Hunger Games is really good too. (Catching Fire, not so much, and I haven’t read Mockingjay yet.)

  9. “The Moon Is Down” by John Steinbeck
    “Nineteen Eighty Four” by George Orwell
    “The Club Of Queer Trades” by G K Chesterton
    “A Scanner Darkly” by Phillip Dick
    “Out Of The Silent Planet”, “Paralandra” and “That Hideous Strength” by C S Lewis
    “Declare” by Tim Powers
    “The New Centurions” by Joseph Waumbaugh
    “The Scar” by China Mieville

    That’s off the top of my head. I’m sure I can come up with more.

    • These are great, Misha – keep them coming!

      • “Something Wicked This Way Comes” by Ray Bradbury
        “Steppenwolf” by Herman Hesse
        “Ronin” by Frank Miller (it’s a graphic novel, but I think it belongs here)
        “The Stranger” by Albert Camus
        “The Collector” by John Fowles
        “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas” by Hunter Thompson (It’s mostly fiction, I hope)
        “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson
        “A Prayer For Owen Meany” by John Irvine
        “Marathon Man” by William Goldman
        “Wild Boys” by William Burroughs

        I’d also second “The Big Sleep”, “A Clockwork Orange”, “Brave New World” and “Slaughterhouse Five”

      • Oh, and “Nova” by Samuel Delany.

      • Misha: I loved Nova! Still rates as my all-time favorite science fiction novel.

    • phenomenal list, Misha, truly.

  10. Any Sherlock Holmes
    The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
    The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth
    Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
    The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
    Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

  11. One Second After by William R. Forstchen will challenge to step and be the man you are meant to be. Read that book, put yourself in the place of John Matherson and you will know what it means to “man up”. No wussy boy could do what needs to be done in the situation presented.

    I would also add, fiction is great but men are not even reading biographies that they should. Go read Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington or Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times by H. W. Brands, those were real men we should should be emulating, not these sissy hollywood boys or over paid “athletes”.

    Let me point you to a book review you will find appropriate to your topic: http://mikecoville.wordpress.com/2013/09/26/review-of-save-the-males-why-men-matter-why-women-should-care/

  12. I read a troubling statistic last year about 2011: 60% of Americans admitted to not reading a novel, while 40% of college graduates claim to never crack another book after graduating. This seems to conflict with Pew Research Center’s stats on reading habits in 2012, claiming that 75 percent of Americans aged 16 and above read at least one book. Based on this article, it seems that most of that 75% were women.

    I’d like to add another reason why men should read more novels: They make us want to be better men. Protagonists like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe are heroic figures. Although broken, Marlowe was a righteous man who did the right thing simply because it was the right thing to do, even when it left him disadvantaged.

    We need more heroic men in America. Too many of our youth look up to professional athletes as heroes, and we all know too well how often these, and other celebrities, fail.

    As for which novel every man should read, I nominate Chandler’s The Big Sleep.

  13. Reblogged this on Random Thoughts and commented:
    This is a call to action for all men. Read this if you are a man, read it if you have a man in your life and read it if you want a man in your life. Parents of boys should definitely read this, the parents of girls are counting on your raising men for them to date someday.

  14. Another well-considered post.
    Thanks,
    Daniel

  15. A lot of men have like my novel, Tales From the Dew Drop Inne, not only because they could relate but also because the chapters are short and tell complete stories. I find that most men want to read a bit at a time rather than having to “finish the book” right off. In fact, I think a number of them left it on the back of the toilet and read a short chapter each time they used the can. If it works for them, it works for me.

  16. Great post and love the book list! Here are my additions:

    Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
    The King Must Die by Mary Renault
    The Bull From the Sea by Mary Renault
    Everything by Chinua Achebe
    Everything by Mark Twain
    Anything by Charles Bukowski
    A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
    1984 by George Orwell
    The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
    A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
    Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (not fiction, but amazing and worth reading)

    Also, men should read poetry. It’s typically shorter, but it can be just as powerful. Poets:
    Sylvia Plath
    Chinua Achebe
    Charles Bukowski
    T.S. Eliot
    Robert Frost
    Phillis Wheatley
    Stanley Kunitz
    Sherman Alexie
    Paul Laurence Dunbar
    Carl Phillips
    Dan O’Brian

    • Beautiful and extensive list, Alex. Thanks so much! Love the addition of poetry. I would add anything by Sharon Olds to that.

  17. smilingldsgirl permalink

    Reblogged this on Smilingldsgirl's Weblog and commented:
    This is pretty great. Why men must start reading fiction again.

  18. You should add the Polish poet and prose writer, Czesław Miłosz, to your list of poets, Alex.

    http://www.ask.com/wiki/Czes%C5%82aw_Mi%C5%82osz?o=2800&qsrc=999&ad=doubleDown&an=apn&ap=ask.com

  19. J. Conrad – The Captive Mind is one of my favorite books of all time! Thanks.

  20. scifimagpie permalink

    A few excellent novels for men…Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad by Minister Faust, Neon Lights by ZigZag Claybourne, Everyone Burns by John Dolan, Orbs by Nick Sansbury Smith, Whores: Not Intended To Be A Factual Account of The Gender War by Nic Wilson. I am accustomed to think of lady readers, but I think all of these are quite suitable.

  21. Thomas Wolfe: “Look Homeward Angel” and “You Can’t go Home Again”
    Stephen Crane: “The Red Badge of Courage”
    Theodore Dreiser: “An American Tragedy” and “Sister Carrie”
    Samuel Clemens: “Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer” and “The Gilded Age”
    Billy Ray Chitwood: “The Reluctant Savage”

    I won’t pull a Travis Luedke on you! :-) Then, again, I guess I did!

  22. Thanks, Billy Ray – you’re the best.

  23. Misha: I loved Nova. Still my all-time favorite science fiction novel, and I first read it maybe 40 years ago.

  24. My dad is the one who helped me discover my love for reading. I almost got suspended from school reading Freehold (5th grade). Without him I wouldn’t be a writer.

  25. Jessica Taylor permalink

    The Disagreement by Nick Taylor
    Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
    Huck Finn by Mark Twain
    It’s Not the End of the World by Judy Blume
    The Circuit by Francisco Jimenes
    The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbah
    Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
    Wonder by R.J. Palacio

  26. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
    Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
    Anything by Jose Saramago

  27. Reblogged this on Books, Books, and more Books and commented:
    It it so important for men to read fiction. I wish men would. They are so much sexier when they are avid readers.

  28. Lauren R permalink

    I am going by what Silas has read: china mieville, patrick o’brien, jeff shaara. fr

  29. The, ahem, seminal books in my Guy Lit Canon were—I suspect not surprisingly—read during my 20s. They include: Still Life With Woodpecker, from Tom Robbins; On the Road, by Jack Kerouac; EVERYTHING EVER WRITTEN (including thank you notes, grocery lists, etc.) by J.D. Salinger; Paul Auster’s NY Trilogy; JP Donleavy’s The Ginger Man; Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One; John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra. Oh, and Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge, too—which pretty much singlehandedly cancels out every posturing, muscular entry posted above.

  30. This is such a fantastic essay, yet I’m saddened it had to have been written. I fell in love with reading at a really young age, so the notion of not reading fiction (or not reading at all) seems completely incomprehensible to me.

    I’ll add a few more works of fiction to this list:
    - Any of the early James Bond novels by Ian Fleming, especially “Casino Royale” or “From Russia With Love.”
    - “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad.
    - “Gravity’s Rainbow” by Thomas Pynchon – if only to give your brain a great mental workout, or to brag that you’ve read it, even if you didn’t understand what the hell it was about.
    - “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
    - “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy
    and I’m surprised no one has mentioned “Moby-Dick.” Or should I be surprised?

  31. nicole permalink

    Great essay! Not even tackling the classics, here are a few I’d add (apologies for repeating books already listed):

    “Cloud Atlas” and “Black Swan Green,” both by David Mitchell
    “All the Pretty Horses” by Cormac McCarthy
    “Skippy Dies” by Paul Murray
    “Drop City” by T.C. Boyle
    “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman
    “The Known World” by Edward Jones
    “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach

  32. John Irving’s books had a big impact on me as a young man. Misha mentioned “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” which was fantastic, as was “The World According to Garp.” But I was fondest of “The Cider House Rules.” The protagonist there, Homer (a reluctant abortionist), is in a constant struggle with what is “morally” right, what is practical, and what friendship and love require. Irving — who is a boxing enthusiast and a “man’s man” — expertly conveys the internal life of a young man whom others might not view as masculine, but who nonetheless must make some of the most important decisions of a man’s life. Fiction such as this teaches readers more about life than nonfiction can, in part because it draws us inside the character’s heads and makes their struggles our own.

    • Thank you, Russell. I loved The Cider House Rules for all the reasons you mentioned. I think that and Garp are my favorite Irving novels.

  33. The first great book of my recollection, and the book that inspired me to become a reader at a very young age, was The Count of Monte Cristo. Friendship, loss, betrayal, revenge, duels to the death, power, wealth, it’s all in there. For me, it has always been one of the most complete dramas ever written. A true masterpiece, and the cornerstone of my reading history.

    • thank you, Chris. We were just talking about The Count of Monte Cristo with out 12 year-old son. I loved that book, too.

  34. Lou Brauer permalink

    Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge and Of Human Bondage are musts, I think. Paul Auster’s Moon Palace, as well. I agree with A Prayer for Own Meany and Cider House Rules. Can’t forget Phillips Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint!

  35. “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell, “The Road” Cormac McCarthy, “Saturday”, Ian McEwon, anything by Douglas Adams (per Kenny), anything by Neruda, “Love in the time of Cholera”.
    “The Known World by Edward Jones,

    • Thank you Lori and Kenny – wonderful picks. Love the addition of “The Sparrow” and “The Known World.” Love Neruda, too. Talk about masculine love poetry.

  36. Thank you, Daniel! Send ‘em over. More, more, more is my motto.

  37. Liza permalink

    I wish there was a “like” button for many of these.
    Would add vintage Easton Ellis, short stories by David Leavitt, Cortazar, fiction of John Irving, Dennis Lehane, Richard Ford…

  38. thieudaddy permalink

    Blood Meridian -It’s McCarthy’s masterpiece. Steps by Jerzy Kosinski. Dead Souls by Gogol. White Noise – DeLillo, U.S.A. Trilogy – Dos Pasos, Invisible Cities – Calvino, the Wasp Factory – Iain Banks, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ -Saramago, The Last Temptation of Christ – Kazanzakis, In The Skin of a Lion – Ondaatje, Savage Detective – Bolaño, Death on the Installment Plan – Celine, Nine Stories and Raise Hight Rooftops Carpenters – Salinger (you gotta love Seymour Glass), pretty much all Kafka, The Idiot and The Possessed – Dostoyefski

    I totally agree on The Brothers Karamazov, Light In August, Brave New World, Pale Fire, Heart of Darkness

    For literate crime, Jim Thompson, Dasheill Hammett, Walter Mosley, Charles Willeford, and Raymond Chandler

  39. “We are going to eat ice cream and we are going to eat shit. The trick is to use different spoons.”
    ― Sam Lipsyte, The Ask
    “I’d become one of those mistakes you sometimes find in an office, a not unpleasant but mostly unproductive presence bobbing along on the energy tides of others, a walking reminder of somebody’s error in judgement.”
    ― Sam Lipsyte, The Ask
    “I knew I was in the vicinity of a serious lesson, if not about how to live life, then at least how to put some poetry into your craven retreat from it.”
    ― Sam Lipsyte, Home Land
    “I bought an energy bar, and as I ate it a great weariness came over me.”
    ― Sam Lipsyte, The Ask
    These books are loved by dudes :)

  40. If I see a man reading Shakespeare, Raymond Chandler (or Dashiell Hammett for that matter), I see a man I’m inclined to know. Great post!

  41. I highly recommend David Gemmell. His characters are self-reliant, gritty… 3-D. His characters are always put into the position of “Run away and hope for safety” or “Fight against the [evil thing]“. There’s nothing namby-pamby about them. He’s a major influence on my writing.
    And through the years I have heard many attribute their own personal bravery to what they absorbed through his books. Courage is contagious.

  42. I LOVE books… So many of the stores are closing down now, so I have resorted to ordering online, BUT the one in the city that I love to go and ponder in is still around (for now) it is a huge light glazed room with lots of cushions, a rustic wooden floor, tall hard wood book shelves filled with new and used tales of fictional and non fictional delight!

    I find myself recently moving into the modern era of books, getting them all on my Android with Amazon Kindle, sometimes Audio books too…. but nothing quite compares with originals… *stares @ my collection* My OCD means I have read them in such an awkward way so as not to put lines in the spines.. lol

    Love this post, thanks so much for sharing :)

  43. My husband’s in Sydney right now – his first time in Australia. I’ve never been and would go just for your book store :)

  44. Lou Brauer permalink

    I forgot to mention In Dubious Battle by Steinbeck!

  45. I’ll add it to the list.

  46. Thanks for reading :)

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