Books and Gender

Reading by the Fire

Do boys read differently than girls? David Brooks thinks so.

We do know from research that boys typically have lower reading scores than girls in standardized reading tests – and this is true in the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia.  sometimes people assume that boys don’t like to read because it’s considered “girlish” or not very masculine and many of the usual role models for reading (teachers and librarians) work in primarily in female-dominated professions. Another study challenged that assumption. After interviewing 49 boys in depth, the researchers concluded the real problem was that it was too “schoolish” – it didn’t connect to their lives outside school, and that the kind of reading done in school didn’t match the kind of reading boys enjoyed in their own time. They also found that boys do a lot of reading that doesn’t “count” as reading – reading game manuals or websites or magazines or comics rather than novels or serious non-fiction. Now there’s an effort afoot to identify books boys will enjoy – or even to write books for boys who are reluctant readers, trying to make it easier, so more satisfying.

Although it is not true that men don’t read, it does appear to the be the case that in general men tend to divide their reading evenly between fiction and non-fiction, whereas about 70% of women’s reading is fiction. According to a large-scale study in Canada, men were less social in their reading habits. They chose books based on reviews or on their own judgment rather than on the recommendations of friends; they were less likely than women to discuss the books they read. Women are more likely to turn to friends for recommendations, and the majority of participants in book clubs are women.

In the early 1980s, Janice Radway studied women who read romance novels as an ethnographic project – looking at the totality of their experience through careful documented observation. Most feminist critics felt women who read romances were learning to believe in patriarchal patterns of relationships – to find their greatest happiness in being subservient to men and to see marriage as a woman’s highest calling. These theories were based on the content of the books, not on actual reading experiences. In a sense, these critics assumed that fans of romances were reading the same book they read, that the book itself contained all of its meaning.

Radway used a different approach to books – reader response theory, which argues that meaning comes from an interaction between the text and the reader, and that readers bring their own meaning with them. This meaning is also informed by interpretive communities – whether those are students in a classroom studying Jane Austen or people who are reading the latest Oprah’s book club choice. The community will develop certain reading practices that are considered the norm. So to find out what romances mean, she interviewed many women who she describes as “compulsive” readers of the genre. They saw it as a way of carving out some time for themselves – a kind of “declaration of independence.” These were largely women who spent their lives caring for others (husbands and children) and enjoyed a fantasy in which a man who was both masculine and tender cared for the heroine – a reversal from daily life, since they were more typically caregivers in their lives. In some ways these books become a critique of patriarchal society because they portray a patriarchal society that is so much better than the real thing.

More recently Radway wrote about girls reading and challenged the notion that women’s self-image is determined by media messages. She argued that when girls read, they often choose books that give them a taste of independence (The Boxcar Children, who lived alone, without adults, or Nancy Drew who was able to solve crimes without much help from her nearly invisible father). She argued that we make ourselves, in part, through collage, by finding things (in books and elsewhere) that we identify with or aspire to. She points to zines as an example of how girls (riot grrrls in particular) literally made collages out of things they found interesting or revealing – and suggests that this kind of self-fashioning should be encouraged in schools rather than dismissing popular culture as a corrupting influence.

photo courtesy of dkjd.

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