A couple of days ago I was browsing through the book blogosphere and came upon a post by The Reading Ape about the gender gap in reading. This was in response to a comment on The Huffington Post that men don’t read as much as women because the publishing world ignores them. Interesting, and something I’ve never thought about before. What I have spent a great deal of thought and discussion on is the gender of the book group.
I currently belong to two book groups, both of which consist of all other women. My husband reads, not as much as I do, but is a reader nonetheless. As a man who very much enjoys the company of women, he feels somewhat jokingly left out of my book group life. This is especially true when I host book group at my house and he’s faced with a room full of women he knows and whose company he quite enjoys, but is nonetheless banished to another room. “Why don’t you form your own book group?” I ask. “Why aren’t there any men in your book group?” he counters. And then we move on with our lives.
Those seem to be the two questions here, or at least two that I’m interested in. Why don’t men form their own book groups? And why don’t we think to ask men to join ours?
Both my husband and I are academics, and so the social circles we run in are highly populated with people who read. My husband is friends with other men who read, but I can guarantee you with 99.6% certainty that they will not be forming a book group any time soon. And, I confess, it’s hard for me to imagine a room full of guys sitting in someone’s living room talking about books.
As someone who thinks and has read quite a bit about gender, there seems to be little historical precedence for this phenomenon. For most of Western history, books and the talking about books were men’s terrain. Most women didn’t write books, and the books most women read were not considered really worth talking about in any serious kind of way. Maybe this is still true, and so men don’t form book groups because they are not seen as serious intellectual activities; book groups are just a group of women using books as an excuse to talk about the things that women always talk about when they get together (and the things women always talk about when they get together are not particularly important). And almost all of the men I know do not get together as groups of men and talk about those kinds of things. They might in small groups or with one other friend, but I just think about all the times my dad went golfing with his buddies. Once one of his friends had a daughter going through a painful divorce, and my mother asked my dad how his friend was doing. “We didn’t talk about that,” he said. The most I could ever glean about what happened out there on the course were fart jokes, and I swear I’m not making that up to be stereotypical or funny.
So maybe book groups are seen as beneath some men, like powder puff football or something? And then there’s a whole other category of men who just don’t read, period, so why would they form a book group?
I don’t think any of the men I know are going to form their own group, so why not let my husband into ours? Why don’t we women ask men to join our book groups? As I said, I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about gender, namely in the interest of writing one long-ass sociology of gender textbook. The more I think about gender, the more inclined I am to believe that we see many more gender differences than actually exist. Gender becomes a set of blinders that leads us to interpret the world in certain ways. Confirmation bias tells us that once we believe something is true, we tend to ignore facts which contradict that belief and remember the facts that support it. We begin to believe in gender pretty early on, and so for most of our lives, we walk around with these blinders on that shut out some experiences and highlight others. So I’m a person who is generally reluctant to talk about gender differences as things that just are, rather than as things that we believe.
Nonetheless, my first response to the question, why don’t we ask men to join our book group is quite simply that they wouldn’t act right. It’s a delicate balance when a group of women get together to talk about a book. The person who made the recommendation is nervous that everyone will hate it, or that they’ll be nothing to talk about. There’s a kind of responsibility to be generally kind and sensitive to each other, and to give everyone a chance to talk. If the book touches on some particular experience you know someone in the group has gone through, there’s a desire on the part of some people to be sensitive to that. There’s a lot going on in a book group, and I’m not sure if I trust a man to be aware of that.
But then I try to peer past my gender blinders and the reality is that not all of the women in the book groups themselves are kind and sensitive to each other. Not all of us always refrain from the desire to just tell our own stories, to try and dominate the conversation. We’re not always sensitive to what the other women bring to the table. So what does any of that have to do with gender?
My favorite theories of gender draw on a the metaphor of performance and place an emphasis on context for understanding gender. Gender is something that you do, rather than something that you are, and so your gender is not always the same in different settings. I don’t even want to say that one man in our book group would act in more feminine ways, but I think maybe he would act differently. But I’m afraid the rest of us women would act differently, too.
I can imagine gender-integrated book groups that would work very well. Some things would be lost and some things would be gained. It’s certainly something I’d be willing to give a try. But as an addition, and not a replacement. In the world we live in right now, there’s something very enjoyable about being in a room full of other women that I’m not ready to give up.
What do you think? Do you have men in your book groups? Do you know of book groups with no women? What’s going on here?