When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat. My dad read it, and my mom read it, and then I read it. I still remember the visceral reaction I had when he ate a mouse. But since them, I’m hooked on adventure stories.
Many people would call Mowat’s books “boy books,” books written with men in mind. But I think of them as just great stories. Like Into the Wild, this is just great storytelling. Great storytelling is for everyone.
On the shelf behind me sits Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home. It tells the story of a friendship made stronger by the cancer diagnosis of Caroline Knapp. It’s a story of hope and deep love and the way that death alters life.
Many people would call Caldwell’s book a “girl book” because it’s about women and friendship. But I think of it as a human book – one that describes all the ways we are affected by other people, the way they build us up and scar us and make us stronger. Humanity is for everyone.
When someone says they don’t read a book because it’s “written for men” or “written for women,” I clench my jaw. This statement makes me so frustrated and sad. Most of the writers I know – men and women both – don’t sit down and think, “I’m now going to write a book that only men will want to read.” Or “This book is only going to be for women.” We write for people. That’s it.
But yet, as a culture, we seem to think some books are for “girls” and some are for “boys,” and when we talk this way, we act as if there is some definition of what it is to be “male” or to be “female.” Only men go into the wilderness. Only women have friends. Only men like sports. Only women talk about parenting. That’s bullshit.
As long as we continue to read with these ideas of gender in mine, we limit ourselves. We miss out on the adventure that exists in living alone in a cabin in the interior of Alaska and the adventure inherent in every friendship. We miss out beginning to broaden our understandings of gender roles and instead, reify them, continuing the nonsense that says only girls wear pink and only men can be farmers.
Sure, we all have preferences for what we like to read – I, for example – will probably never really enjoy business books, but that’s not because they are mostly written by men; it’s because I just don’t really care that much about business models. When we start basing our choices in reading on the sometimes perceived gender of the writer or on our perception of the intended audience of a work, we not only lose out on the chance to read something potentially great but also subtly claim that this gender has nothing valuable to say to us and reinforce stereotypes about what makes something “male” or “female.” (These problems also extend to books we label as “gay” or “straight,” “black” “Latino” “Asian” or “white,” “rich” or “poor.”
So I’m going to re-read some Farley Mowat, and I will probably pick up Meg Worlitzer’s new book Interestings when I’m at the library next. I’m sure they both have something to offer me about what it means to be human . . . and isn’t that part of why we all read?
What books have you heard called “books for men” or “books for women?” What do you think of these categories?