My male friends and family members are some of the most intelligent people I know. Alert, interested, perceptive, their natural curiosity about the world far exceeds my own. I defer to them readily on obscure matters of geography, the most likely place to discover a scorpion in your wine glass, the colours of the Cameroonian flag. Their powers of retention are not only striking but amusingly indiscriminate, to the extent that a fact relayed to them once, whether it concerns Jungian psychology or Leinster Rugby, is seldom forgotten. The source of this knowledge, however, is not traceable to books, because curiously, despite their worldliness, few of them read.
When pressed on how this came to be the case, their answers were no different to those of the non-reading women I know. They were explained almost invariably in terms of connection and alienation, the ease and inclusivity of the screen versus the concentration demanded of the lonely page, in other words, as Gil Scott Heron put it as early as 1971, a desire “to plug in, turn on and cop out”. As the appetite for short-form digital media expands, the time left over in which to consume a study of a single topic is shrinking. This sort of mono-tasking is now regarded as anti-social. Passé. The reasoning is simple: why immerse ourselves in the comparatively reduced world of a book when an endless feed of up-to-the-minute information is just a screen-click away?
Nonetheless, I began to badger some of the men in my life for the names of books that had, on occasion, succeeded in diverting their gaze from the Twitter feed to the printed page, albeit for a limited spell. Drawing from the fiction shelf, Paul Murray’s sublime tragicomedy, Skippy Dies, came out top. A wittily original portrayal of the high jinks that take place in a boys’ private boarding school in South Dublin, this novel is sure to resonate with younger readers, and even succeeded in halting the roving attentions of my brother who, in his late teens, calmly absorbed all of its 661 pages without protest. For something along the same lines, I’m yet to encounter a reading-sceptic whose views haven’t been challenged by The Catcher in the Rye. Often paired on school reading lists with Jennifer Johnston’s equally affecting How Many Miles to Babylon, both books have triumphed where others have failed, blending a craftily restrained style of narration with a choice of subject matter whose relevance springs eternal.
There was also resounding enthusiasm expressed among some of my less ‘bookish’ friends for Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, the first book in his revered eight-part Dark Tower series, while Cormac McCarthy’s epic westerns, Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses, still elicit sighs of wonderment. Considered a rite of passage for many, one friend recalled the latter as the first book to make the lyric capabilities of language “actually seem cool”. Similar feelings were echoed in response to Raymond Carver’s short story collections, Cathedral and Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, both of which are ideal candidates for tentative readers, particularly those with limited time and patience to devote to fiction. Simply written, with a naturalistic treatment of setting and dialogue, his no-frills approach to story-telling makes for effortless reading and is itself a reflection of one of the guiding principles of his work: that the profound can exist quite comfortably within the context of the banal.
Some newer titles to have met with approval include the high-stakes thriller, American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, which tells the story of a woman fleeing a Mexican cartel with her son in order to establish a more prosperous life in the U.S, and Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, a suspenseful whodunnit and coming-of-age tale set in the swampiest reaches of North Carolina in the early 1960s. Fusing all the tenets of a classic murder mystery with unrivalled descriptions of the natural world, this book continues to be a global bestseller, its readership having defied the traditional gender divide and sent men of all ages scurrying in search of extra copies to stockpile alongside their toilet rolls.
Please keep an eye on tomorrow’s blog posts for Part Two of this series, which will focus on a selection of non-fiction recommendations for the non-reading male in your life.