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Fall for the Book Forum Poses Provocative Questions

February 18, 2009
"Woman With Book," Pablo Picasso

"Woman With Book," Pablo Picasso

The Fall for the Book Festival has been using the “off season” not only to begin planning for this fall’s festival, but also to crank up some interesting initiatives. One of these is the new Fall for the Book Forum, which is striving to build an online community of readers and writers talking about some topics central to our shared love of literature. Each week, the website is posting a new question on the left-hand side of its homepage; now all that’s needed is some more readers to get in on the discussion.  

This week’s question is a quietly provocative one, stemming from this 2007 NPR story about women reading more than men. Fall for the Book asks:

In late 2007, National Public Radio posted a story revealing that women read far more than men (9 vs. 5 books/year). The statistics gathered from the 2008 Fall for the Book festival show the same trend in those who attended book-related events. Clearly, reading is not inherently a female thing. Why, then, are these statistics showing what they are?

I encourage folks to visit the Fall for the Book site and sign-up to join the discussion. I myself am going to post the following there in just a few minutes as a way to help get the ball rollling.

The NPR story starts with novelist Ian McEwan conducting an informal study that revealed a greater interest in reading by women than by men. Several years ago, Mario Vargas Llosa made a similar observation at the start of his essay “Why Literature?” (first published in The New Republic and reprinted in various spots on the web). The first (longish) section of that essay is below:

It has often happened to me, at book fairs or in bookstores, that a gentleman approaches me and asks me for a signature. “It is for my wife, my young daughter, or my mother,” he explains. “She is a great reader and loves literature.” Immediately I ask: “And what about you? Don’t you like to read?” The answer is almost always the same: “Of course I like to read, but I am a very busy person.” I have heard this explanation dozens of times: this man and many thousands of men like him have so many important things to do, so many obligations, so many responsibilities in life, that they cannot waste their precious time buried in a novel, a book of poetry, or a literary essay for hours and hours. According to this widespread conception, literature is a dispensable activity, no doubt lofty and useful for cultivating sensitivity and good manners, but essentially an entertainment, an adornment that only people with time for recreation can afford. It is something to fit in between sports, the movies, a game of bridge or chess; and it can be sacrificed without scruple when one “prioritizes” the tasks and the duties that are indispensable in the struggle of life.

It seems clear that literature has become more and more a female activity. In bookstores, at conferences or public readings by writers, and even in university departments dedicated to the humanities, the women clearly outnumber the men. The explanation traditionally given is that middle-class women read more because they work fewer hours than men, and so many of them feel that they can justify more easily than men the time that they devote to fantasy and illusion. I am somewhat allergic to explanations that divide men and women into frozen categories and attribute to each sex its characteristic virtues and shortcomings; but there is no doubt that there are fewer and fewer readers of literature, and that among the saving remnant of readers women predominate.

This is the case almost everywhere. In Spain, for example, a recent survey organized by the General Society of Spanish Writers revealed that half of that country’s population has never read a book. The survey also revealed that in the minority that does read, the number of women who admitted to reading surpasses the number of men by 6.2 percent, a difference that appears to be increasing. I am happy for these women, but I feel sorry for these men, and for the millions of human beings who could read but have decided not to read.

They earn my pity not only because they are unaware of the pleasure that they are missing, but also because I am convinced that a society without literature, or a society in which literature has been relegated — like some hidden vice — to the margins of social and personal life, and transformed into something like a sectarian cult, is a society condemned to become spiritually barbaric, and even to jeopardize its freedom. I wish to offer a few arguments against the idea of literature as a luxury pastime, and in favor of viewing it as one of the most primary and necessary undertakings of the mind, an irreplaceable activity for the formation of citizens in a modern and democratic society, a society of free individuals….

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