After twenty-something years of existence and countless interactions with the opposite sex, I have made a problematic observation—the men in my life decidedly social distance themselves from fiction. It doesn’t end there. They generally display a misplaced sense of pride when they humblebrag about how they only read nonfiction (which is generally followed by a self-important half-crooked smile and a patronizing head tilt).
And while there have been many terrible excuses men have given me for not reading fiction, here are the top four.
1. I only read things that are actually useful.
I can trace this phenomenon back to my early teen years when I was going through an intense sci-fi/fantasy/romance phase. (If I’m being perfectly honest, romance holds more of a life-long-love-affair status on my shelves.)
I digress. As somebody who identifies as a book nerd (loud and proud), in high school I read books at the expense of my studies. A chain-reader, if you will. Things got so bad that I would hide novels behind textbooks at home so my parents wouldn’t give me grief for not studying enough. If you’re an Asian kid like me, you know what I’m talking about.
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Needless to say, my not-so-clever ruse didn’t work quite as I had planned and my parents caught me in the act. Several times.
“If you’re going to continue reading books when you’re supposed to be studying, at least read something that will be useful!,” my father yelled with exasperation on one such occasion, brandishing my hefty fantasy novel back and forth. Like him, many see an inherent value in nonfiction because it presents hard facts rooted in reality. But what about when reality becomes too much and you need to hit pause?
Escaping into novels has invariably put me in a better mood, more times than I can count. They have comforted me. They have given me hope. They have given me precious hours of respite. In that, there is tremendous value.
2. I prefer reading books that discuss weightier issues.
Picture this. It’s a crisp winter night pre ‘rona time. You’re meeting your very first crush from childhood after seven years. You know, back from when you used to exchange Pokémon cards and sported an awkward bowl cut. You’ve orchestrated a quintessentially New York night, carefully choosing bars in the East Village that attract a cool, eclectic crowd, but aren’t noisy to a point where you have to scream to make yourself heard.
As you make your way to the second bar of the night and you cast flushed furtive smiles at each other, you can tell that there is undeniable chemistry. Things are going great. You both gush over the genius of Ibrahim Maalouf, discuss the beauty in Kierkegaard’s bitter diagnosis of the human condition, and share your results of the Myers-Briggs Test. He’s an ENTP. At some point of course you mention the indelible effect books have had on you and he says that he loves to read as well. (Is this guy even real?)
But probably not the same kind of books you like to read, he says. You raise an eyebrow at him. He reads a lot of business and management books, he says. Weighty, boring books, he adds with an entirely unconvincing self-deprecating chuckle. You roll your eyes because you’re tired of navigating a patriarchal society that denies cultural capital to women and exhausted from constantly having to prove your worth. So you explain.
Female authors and book reviewers are still grossly underrepresented and you are sick of heteronormative male narratives occupying prime real estate in the literary landscape, you say. Why are female problems neatly sectioned off as entire genres which are then not deemed important enough for straight men to read? I didn’t mean to offend you, he rushes apologetically, it’s just that I haven’t read anything written by a woman in the recent past, fiction or otherwise. Pop, bursts your bubble.
3. I’m obsessed with self-improvement because I’m a perfectionist.
Anyone who’s single in New York City will tell you that dating in this city is hard. Especially, if you’re a woman. I mean there’s a reason why HBO created an iconic six-season show to highlight the horrors and hilarity of dating in the Big Apple. But along the way, through all the failed dates and one-night regrets, if you’re lucky, you’ll make a new friend or two.
And if you are my friend, I will unapologetically recommend books to you. Even if you don’t ask for it. Sorry, not sorry. We have all read books that change us forever, and if you are someone dear to me, I want to share that experience with you. I want to discuss at length the many contradictions and complexities of different characters, a turn in the phrasing that made me go ‘whaaaaa,’ the feelings the story evoked in great nuance.
I was recently on the phone catching up with one such friend of mine—as one does in the midst of a pandemic—trying to get him to read Flights. He confessed that he didn’t really enjoy fiction, that he had tried it in the past, but it ‘just wasn’t his thing.’ He then proceeded to say an even odder thing. He said that he loved reading self-help books because they showed him how to be a better person.
Fiction furnishes us with a uniquely powerful tool to understand others, and in turn ourselves. It has been a long-acknowledged truth that great literature, enlarges our potential for good and improves us as human beings. And now we have brain science confirming that this claim is truer than we imagined.
4. I just don’t like to read, I find it terribly boring.
Um, okay. I’m not even going to try. Goodbye.
The merits of reading beyond the boundaries we have created for ourselves are far too many to overlook. It is with that thought that I wish to propose something radical: When it comes to reading, what if we try to be as genre-agnostic as possible? What if we read beyond our comfort zones? What if we read with an open mind without using labels created by cultural gatekeepers?
I haven’t admitted defeat just yet though. I am hopeful that someday, I’ll meet a man who will say the three magic words to me: “I love fiction.”
Featured image: @Nodar via Twenty20