The Thinking 

Why Boys Don’t Read

August 21, 2012


AT Memoria Press, Martin Cochran considers why boys are turned off by reading. Cochran identifies perhaps the single greatest reason. Boys are discouraged from heroic literature. He writes:

It is now well-recognized that boys are not reading. What is the problem? Most commentators want to say that boys have an aversion to books. But the problem is quite the opposite: books—modern books, that is—have an aversion to boys.

A recent edition of The New York Times Sunday Book Review featured a Robert Lipsyte article that attempts to address this problem. Here is the proffered solution:

[B]oys need to be approached individually with books about their fears, choices, possibilities and relationships — the kind of reading that will prick their dormant empathy, involve them with fictional characters and lead them into deeper engagement with their own lives. This is what turns boys into readers.

Excuse me while I dab my eyes delicately with my handkerchief, touched as I am by this tender thought.

Okay, let’s get something straight here: solutions like this are part of the problem. I’m normally against shooting spit wads in class, but I am willing to make an exception in this one case. The entire educational establishment has tried for over 50 years to force boys into their effeminate mold, and in the process, they’ve succeeded in evacuating literature of all the things boys like in books: action, adventure, danger, bloodletting—and an iron moral code that is taught, not by smarmy sermonizing, but by immersing them in the moral universe of a story about a hero who not only believes in this code, but enforces it with a vengeance.

Boys now seek refuge in cheesy horror novels because the Cultural Authorities won’t give them the adventure books that were once staples in every boy’s life. It is to this I attribute the popularity of vampire novels (and movies and television shows). But even here a boy is destined for disappointment. [cont.]

Cochran offers an excellent list of books for boys.


—– Comments —-

Terry Morris writes:

So someone has finally figured out that reading for the sake of reading simply doesn’t make sense … to boys. What a revelation!

Thomas F. Bertonneau writes:

I have a seventeen-year-old son, about to be a high school senior, who, while not entirely book-averse, is nevertheless obviously “turned off” by what has been offered to him as literature by the public secondary curriculum. His “literature teachers” have steadily imposed on him – and all the other boys in his class – what I can only describe as semi-literate trash, including a novel about female adolescent suicide that must be as damaging to girls as to boys. The books that my son has read voluntarily have come from the long list of books that I read voluntarily and voraciously when I was a teenager.

Some time ago, I wrote an article for The Brussels Journal under the title Edgar Rice Burroughs and Masculine Narrative that expresses my sense of the feminization of literature and criticism by the professoriate and of the loss that it entails. Of the many articles that I have published over the years, two have incited massive, hostile response. One was my Modern Age essay on Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and the other was Edgar Rice Burroughs and Masculine Narrative. I might say that the Burroughs essay set off a hysterical response from the usual suspects. (I mean the ones whose critical vocabulary is exhausted by terms like “racist” and “misogynistic.”) I have an instinctive appreciation of Martin Cochran’s thesis, which is so commonsensical that only our own, vitiated culture could not see the clarity and truth of it.

It’s not only the pernicious influence of the emasculated education establishment and the stupefaction of video games that deflect boys from reading; it’s also the disappearance of cheap paperback books with fairly lurid covers (like the 1960s Ace editions of Burroughs) that were sold out of those turning book racks in drug stores for thirty-five cents per item. Even comic books have retreated into specialty stores or have morphed into expensive “graphic novels” that no one not looking for them would find in a modern bookstore.

I almost always include Burroughs’ Princess of Mars (1912) on the reading list in my science fiction course. I can report that men and women respond to it quite strongly and positively. It is no mystery why. The story is powerfully chivalric, male and female characters are sharply distinguished, but never at the expense of one for the sake of another, and the moral causality is crystal clear. The exotic settings undoubtedly also play a role in making the narrative so appealing. In sum: Boys need John Carter of Mars and Tarzan, but girls can find nourishment in them too; by contrast, no one can find nourishment in Thirteen Reasons why Mean Kids Made me Commit Suicide, or whatever that wretched little book is called.

Laura writes:

… it’s also the disappearance of cheap paperback books with fairly lurid covers (like the 1960s Ace editions of Burroughs) that were sold out of those turning book racks in drug stores for thirty-five cents per item.

Interesting. Maybe you’re right.

Mr. Bertonneau adds:

It’s worth thinking further about the disappearance of the thirty-five cent paperback adventure story. Sometime in the late 1970s Congress amended the federal income tax law regarding the publishing industry such that publishers became liable for unsold warehouse inventory. This adjustment of the tax law drastically altered the economics of publishing, especially at the level of cheap books by the sale of which in large quantities over time the publisher might earn a small profit on his investment. When I was an undergraduate, many books used in the classroom were ordinary paperback books under the Signet or Anchor or Penguin imprints. They cost seventy-five cents or one dollar and twenty-five. By the time I went to graduate school in the mid-1980s, those cheap books had vanished. The so-called trade paperback or “soft cover” book had come in, with a price-tag about ten times that of the previous cheap edition. Even where the “pocket edition” paperback persisted, its price had also gone up many times over. The same thing happened in the case of entertainment books, like the Ace editions of Tarzan and At the Earth’s Core.

Part of the cultural trend to deprive boys of literacy is, therefore, an alteration in the tax-laws, which, like most such alterations, had the design of bringing yet more cash into the endlessly recycling federal coffer. When the turning rack in the drugstore or five-and-dime no longer had any economic significance and vanished, one of the natural avenues of adolescent male literacy vanished with it. The spontaneity of judging a book precisely by its cover and wanting to acquire and read it is central to male initiation into literacy.

Kevin M. writes:

All hyperbole aside, I am both an obsessive and aggressive reader. I have been so since approximately the age of 13. I graduated from college with a BFA in Creative Writing. The number of books I have read is well into the thousands, and although I do treat myself to the occasional guilty pleasure, I tend to read whatever challenges me both intellectually and with regard to my tastes. I once read a book on African big game hunting (Death in the Long Grass) strictly because I am not a hunter, and have never been nor wish to visit Africa. When I walk into Barnes & Noble, my credit cards break out into a sweat. Here’s how it happened.

When I was around nine or ten, I saw a movie on TV starring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. It was called Where Eagles Dare, a WW II action/suspense film made in 1968 and based on the novel by Alistair MacLean. MacLean was the author of HMS Ulysses, The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra and about twenty other action/suspense stories stemming from WW II through the Cold War. His name remains in the Guinness Book, and was for a time the biggest selling English language novelist on the planet. Today, nobody knows who he is and most of his books are out of print.

A 10-year old boy’s response to watching a half-dozen men parachute from an aircraft, at night and over enemy territory, and all carrying Schmeisser MP-38 machine pistols is something you do not take lightly. On top of that, boys instinctively know in our bone marrow that if we grow up to be epically cool like Clint Eastwood or Richard Burton, our lives will be the stuff of song and legend. That the luscious Mary Ure was chasing after Richard Burton in the film also suggested what heroic behavior can invite into one’s life. Where Eagles Dare became my favorite film, and I would stay up to the wee hours if it was scheduled for broadcast.

Some years later when I was around 13, I noticed a paperback book on a rack in a department store my mother frequented. The cover art depicted two men struggling on top of a cable car hundreds of feet over an alpine ravine, and when I read the title my heart nearly stopped. I had no idea my favorite film was a book, and less than one month later my paper route financed the inclusion of every book published by Alistair MacLean to my book shelf.

The only writer I can remember admiring from my incarceration in the public education system was Jack London (a story called To Build a Fire, read aloud to the class).

I was addicted to reading from a very early age, and most of my teachers recognized me as quite ahead of my classmates in English class, both boys and girls. I will be 52 next month, and the writers whose work I have consumed include Frederick Forsyth, P.G. Wodehouse, Ernest Hemingway, Larry McMurtry, numerous other novelists, and non-fiction from so many authors their names are a blur.

Boys’ rejection of reading is no surprise to me. Here’s how it works. If you hear that there are fantastic women or men in a certain foreign country (read: who are highly attractive and make favorable mates), or that you can get a fabulous, high-paying job if you just learn a certain foreign language, you will be highly motivated to do just that. But if your language instructor attempts to expose the architecture of language by way of term life insurance, auto repair or the history of tree-dwelling reptiles, you will likely be so bored to tears that a trip to the dentist would seem preferable to language class. There must be interest on the part of the student, or learning will not take place.

I remain convinced that the single most valuable change we can make to public education is to have same-sex education. Boys must be taught by men in an environment where there are absolutely no females. Girls’ schools would likewise have no males on school grounds. The opposite sex is a distraction and a hindrance in an environment where education takes place. On two occasions I flunked algebra in high school. I recall both of my algebra teachers quite vividly. One looked like Kate Jackson from the original Charley’s Angels, and the other was a clone of Kim Kardashian but with strawberry blonde hair. It is the apotheosis of immoral to put women like them in front of adolescent boys trying to comprehend algebra. At the age of 16, it was hardly my fault that I had the testosterone of an African elephant. I blame feminism and our Human Resources culture for my being sentenced to summer school twice.

Anyway, if you ever come across a man who fell in love with the written word as a child, ask him who his favorite authors from boyhood were. It does not bode well for society that, twenty years hence, some men will respond with “J.K. Rowling.” Alistair MacLean may not have been any kind of career threat to Ernest Hemingway, but at least he didn’t draft his characters’ names from a list of kitchen spices.

Paul writes:

Books today barrage boys and men with girls and women who are at least as physically and politically powerful as men and usually more powerful. The barrage is pervasive and expressed in strange ways in fantasy/science fiction novels. Of the many such novels directed at males, the main male character remains the main character but is regularly put down by the surrounding female characters. The female characters are the only characters (besides the antagonist) who can ridicule or dominate the main character.

It is why I abandoned the genre years ago. For example, in the Harry Potter series (I bought the first two volumes to help my mother sleep—she did not like to read until then—but I also found them charming and light), Quidditch is a dangerous game calling for fast reflexes and power; but as the story moves on, females start appearing on the teams (a cynical afterthought to get more female readers). What? Females playing tennis against males is nonsensical. Fantasy can imbue characters with superhuman powers, but fantasy still must be grounded in common sense, which is that men are more powerful in the end. If the ground is taken out of that principle, males will stop reading exactly as they are doing.

God only knows what perverse propaganda the genre exhibits in the majority of fantasy/science fiction novels, which are written by and starring females. I dare not look. Oh wait! I see them on TV and switch the channel. Is it any wonder that white males are attracted to black-male dominated sports on TV? What else do we have on TV that is manly besides history, science, politics, and ultimate fighting, which is mostly boring? Lizard Lick repossession is fun.

Note that the fantasy genre spoken about does not include female romance novels. It might seem strange for a traditionalist to enjoy the first Twilight movie; but to my amazement, I did enjoy it. Note that the male lead was easily the most powerful person in the movie, and the main characters behaved traditionally. I have not read the book or viewed the sequels, which I bet have the female becoming as powerful as the male or the American Indian becoming as powerful, or both.

The loss of the genre is greatly missed because it is incredibly inventive, clever, and gripping. I look forward to retiring, when I will be able to move to Quebec or France for the six warmer months, to study French, and to fish.

Joe Long writes:

Computer games today are often more tightly plotted – with more compelling characters, better dialogue and certainly more satisfying conflict resolution – than juvenile novels, from a masculine point of view. (Quite often, they also feature the sort of graphics which adorned the covers of Burroughs paperbacks, but which had to be imagined by the reader – not normally a difficulty or hardship for an adolescent male! – once engrossed in the text within.)

Mrs. P. writes:

I have seven grandsons who are old enough to read. Yet only one, Ricky, of these seven reads for the enjoyment of it. Ricky is twelve. Right now he is finishing off Christopher Paolinis’ Inheritance books. Why has Ricky become an avid reader while his cousins have not? I think it has to do with his father, my son, who himself reads for the enjoyment of it. Not only does Ricky see his father reading, but the two sit down together and have conversations about what each is reading. Ricky has a reading mentor in his father. Both father and son have rich imaginations, too, that surely contribute to their reading experience.

Although my son-in-law is a wonderful father and has many fine qualities, he is not an avid reader. It does not surprise me then that none of his sons are avid readers. Like father, like son.

The books that boys at one time found interesting reading still exist and can be obtained through our library system. Why not use the library system? It doesn’t cost anything too.

As far as all boys schools are concerned, I suggested to one of my grandsons who was 16 at the time that I thought he would make straight “A’s” if he wasn’t distracted by girls and attended an all boys school instead. He told me that it was the presence of girls that made him want to get out of bed in the morning and go to school in the first place. Oh well.

Diana M. writes:

Your post about boys and books made me think of the Scottish author Patrick O’Brian (yes that is the spelling), author of the Aubrey-Maturin series.

Hollywood made a reasonably decent film of one of the books as “Master and Commander,” which adapted themes of the series into one film. It was pretty good, with an outstanding performance by Russell Crowe, but still something of a disappointment. It was a one-off and I for one got the feeling they were smashing everything into one film because they knew it was the only chance they had. Some characters beg for more than one film: in my opinion, Aubrey and Maturin are tailor made for such. In the old days, Hollywood would have turned these books into a profitable series. But instead, they dish out of childish comic book “franchises.” That is the word they use, so I use it as well, even though I detest it.

I suppose franchise is accurate, as it does evoke junk food eateries, and these movies are visual and mental junk food. Hollywood should be giving us adventures like the Aubrey-Maturin series, films about a mature professional relationship between two adventurous, high-functioning men, fictional characters but based on reality.  Instead we get Batman. What a shame.

Share:Email this to someoneShare on Facebook0Tweet about this on TwitterPin on Pinterest0Share on Google+0