Declan Hughes

Monday 21 April 2008

Stories for Boys

There were no great expressions of surprise at the recent poll that found men only read half a book every five years or so, and then only if their wives or girlfriends bought it for them and forced them to read it on pain of withdrawal of essential services or some such. Meanwhile, women read all the books, especially the ones you'd think they wouldn't, like gory and sadistic accounts of serial killers, which are often written by women in the first place. Women even read the books men claim to read but don't, like those biographies of sports and business figures you buy for your Uncle Tony or your father-in-law at Christmas.

I must say I was taken aback, and a little dismayed, at the findings. It's not exactly a secret that women read more than men, but still, I expected men would hold their own in the non-fiction stakes. I recalled all those men I had met over the years, practical, no-nonsense types who announced that they had "no time" for "sitting around" reading fiction, that they "couldn't see the point of it"  since it was "all made up." I had assumed that at least they were all piling into Stalingrad or The Good, The Bad and the Rugby. I didn't want to believe I was wrong. I thought of a survey I read a few years ago which found that extremely strong filter coffee was better for heart disease than tea, despite the significantly higher levels of caffiene it possessed. On the face of it this seemed extraordinary. Was caffiene good for the heart after all? Was medical science bunk? And then I noticed that the survey had been conducted in Glasgow and all became clear. In less favoured parts of that city, male life expectancy is lower than it is in Iraq. A diet rich in fried and sugary foods combines with heavy smoking and serious drinking to present serious health problems among the working class and unemployed. And what do they drink? Tea. And what do the middle classes drink? The End.

I had briefly hoped some similar cluelessness might be identified to undermine the new poll. Perhaps the sample had been conducted on board a coach ferrying heavily refreshed alickadoos from Croke Park back to the security of their D4 fastness, or during a coffee break at an IBEC confererence.

But there I go, taking a pop at easy targets. If a poll had found women falling behind in some respect compared to men, the standing army of female pundits would mobilise to defend their sisters, and quite right too. When men are portrayed as a bunch of useless moochers who can't be bothered even to read books specifically targetted at them, other men shrug their shoulders and move on. We are indifferent to each other, it seems.

Obviously, as a writer, I'm one of the men who do read. Most of the men I know read. It appears we're a statistical blip, that we exist within the margin of error. But while I don't share the equanimity of men who don't read (there's no evidence that they miss it) I think I understand it.

Because there was a time when I was that soldier. I read voraciously from the age of five. The library was my second home. By ten or eleven, I had graduated from Enid Blyton and E. Nesbit to Agatha Christie and Edgar Allan Poe. And then I simply stopped. Maybe I ran out of suitable reading material – there was no "young adult" category then. I know it came after a period when I was badly bullied at school, so maybe books suddenly lost their allure when I realised they could not cure all my ills. Whatever the cause, a couple of years passed during which I read nothing but football comics, album covers and stereo catalogues.

I know it was also a time I spent almost exclusively in male company, a time when male friends were more important than anything I could find in a book. What the lads thought was all that counted.

And then a few things happened all at once. Girls appeared, and instantly outstripped the lads in my esteem (a position they've retained). My tormentor vanished. And someone gave me a book to read.

When I say that my elder sister, no doubt irritated by my incipient tendency towards mooching and fiddling (the default leisure habits of the non-reading male: they even made a game out of them, called golf) presented me with a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird in an attempt to get me to sit still, and that my life altered as a result, I am manipulating the truth for dramatic effect. It is, nonetheless, the truth.

For the majority of men, I guess what the lads think will always be more important than anything they could find in a book. Maybe they didn't have a sister. Maybe they're right. Safety in numbers. Meanwhile, out here at the margin of error, we'll continue to send up flares in the hope of attracting the waverers, the dreamers, the bored and disaffected and curious, all those whose best idea of truth is to be found within the pages of a book that's all made up.


The Irish Times, Saturday April 19