Boys and Their Toys

Mark Bauerlein, blogging for the Chronicle of Higher Education, posted some interesting reflections on boys and reading this past week . He’s reflecting on the iPulp Fiction Library, which is probably worth a blog in itself. The library, run by a friend of Bauerlein’s, exists to promote reading, especially though not exclusively for boys, by reinvigorating the tradition of the dime novel by providing free onlineipulp fiction.

A few excerpts from Bauerlein’s blog:

Five years ago I would have written back with something like, “C’mon, can’t we push a little Melville and Swift instead?”

Not anymore. Books of any kind compete with so many digital diversions that just about any fiction that encourages long reading hours is worth a look — pulp or sports or Western or murder mystery or classic novel. Reading researchers believe that sheer volume of reading plays a large role in the acquisition of basic literacy skills and vocabulary, and that print matter of even child-oriented books can be more verbally challenging than some of the best television shows. (Read this entire article and note its far-reaching findings.)

Furthermore, I believe, the boy reading problem is reflected in the growing achievement gap between girls and boys. Admissions officers see this every year. At my old school, UCLA, the entering class last year was 59 percent female. Across town at Cal State-LA, the undergraduate population is 63 percent female. And officials expect the discrepancy to increase.

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Real Men Don’t Read

Bauerlein is touching on one of my pet concerns, partly because I have a son who reads a great deal, while also trying to maintain his coolness quotient in being a basketball and soccer player. While being further concerned with enhancing his growing reputation as a lady killer. Lady killers not found in libraries as a general rule.

“Real Men Don’t Read” could probably be a slogan on a best-selling adolescent t-shirt, is my general guess. Boys learn mostly to impress girls by carrying their books, not by reading them. I also feel this poignant sense of protectiveness for the few men who wander in to my literature classrooms. Among English majors nationally, women outnumber men 3 to 1.

(Side note: a quick google search calls up 5180 pages with some version of the phrase Real Men Don’t’ Read. Fewer than I might have thought, but the idea is out there.)

So, I mostly agree with Bauerlein here. It is surely a truism by now in higher education that there’s a problem with young men and higher education. Indeed, it’s fair to say that more and more colleges are starting to treat them like an underrepresented minority.

(And, incidentally, I see more and more posts from women—including a response to Bauerlein’s blog–that, in a different context, would sound just like white people ridiculing the supposedly inherent inferiority of black people. Along the lines of “If boys weren’t so stupid, there wouldn’t be a problem.”).

The reports from the NEA emphasize just how drastic the non-reading problem is for men as opposed to women. This, in fact, is one of the main reasons I’m dubious of those defensive responses that suggest reading on the net is just as good as any other kind of reading. Studies used to suggest, at least, the higher levels of comfort boys had with the net and all things digital, but that is long past. Even if men are now spending all their time reading online, it apparently isn’t doing them any good. They score consistently far lower than women on all kinds of tests for reading comprehension and language abilities. Indeed, studies suggest that girls now spend more time online and post more written content than boys. Boys dominate in only one area—video content:

Girls continue to dominate most elements of content creation. Some 35% of all teen girls blog, compared with 20% of online boys, and 54% of wired girls post photos online compared with 40% of online boys. Boys, however, do dominate one area – posting of video content online. Online teen boys are nearly twice as likely as online girls (19% vs. 10%) to have posted a video online somewhere where someone else could see it.

All of this goes to show why my daughter thinks it’s weird that I blog, and my son ignores it entirely. I am, no doubt, working out of my feminine side, or perhaps my inner 17-year-old female child.

In any case, generally speaking, I have my doubts that boys are making up for their lack of reading books with a lot of reading and writing on the net.

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What Should Big Boys Read?

I think that not a lot of attention has been given to reading material especially for boys in schools. I’ve mentioned Jon Sciezka on this blog before, and I think the work he’s doing with boys’ reading is important. A colleague seemed flummoxed when I suggested to her that for a lot of boys, maybe most boys, The Great Gatsby is the equivalent of a chick flick, as is most of Shakespeare, Hawthorne, and most of the others we call greats. Generally speaking, though, I agree with the following post: “Why Hemingway is Chick Lit.” Among other things the post gives us the following completely unscientific but telling anecdote:

“When women stop reading, the novel will be dead,” declared Ian McEwan in the Guardian last year. The British novelist reached this rather dire conclusion after venturing into a nearby park in an attempt to give away free novels. The result?

Only one “sensitive male soul” took up his offer, while every woman he approached was “eager and grateful” to do the same.

We can talk about patriarchal power all we want, but in general patriarchal power is exercised on the playground by those boys who make fun of Shakespeare, not those who actually bothered to read something other than the Spark notes.

Still, I’m a little hesitant. It’s not clear to me that reading a lot of anything is by itself a great thing for reading or a great thing for boys. n+1 famously argued that we’re so obsessed with a reading crisis that we think we should praise everything that’s written and praise anyone who reads the morning paper. I’m not sure that reading a dime novel is in and of itself superior to a film or even a complex video game; better, probably, for developing vocabulary to some degree, but not better for other kinds of developments–assuming that a film and a video game develop different kinds of competencies and visual literacies. It would be important to understand reading on a continuum. What builds the habit of reading in boys, and what makes reading seem like just another drudge assignment?

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Can Reading Make You Cool?

More from Bauerlein’s blog

More leisure reading might help, and books like iPulp Fiction Library’s appeal to boys a lot more than the “problem stories” and identity narratives that fill Young Adult shelves in the libraries and bookstores. Back in high school, I remember boys passing around books as a kind of cool underground connection — including jocks and “stoners” (as they were called then). I was hit hard by The Brothers Karamazov and The Sound and the Fury when I was 18, but those didn’t catch on. What did was Ball Four, a knuckleballer’s diary of a season with the Seattle Pilots; North Dallas Forty, a novel about a receiver for an NFL team; Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (yes, really); and someone snagged a copy of The Happy Hooker, too.

Do these kinds of secret reading networks still exist? We have Harry Potter, of course, but that’s a different thing, a juggernaut of popularity. Also, there is little evidence that Harry Potter has made many teenage boys read a lot of other books besides Rowling’s. We read the books above not because everybody else did, but because they met a curiosity, or a need, or insecurity, or humor, or heroism that we felt inside, or wanted to. Some of them had some good writing in them, too.

Bauerlein looks like he must be about my age, and the list above confirms it. I never actually got around to Fear of Flying and The Happy Hooker. Much too repressed. On the other hand, Ball Four and North Dallas Forty…Yes, god, yes… Also the Brothers K. Must have been the in book with high school administrative poohbahs in the 70s.

I’ve reflected in the past on the idea that books function as signs to other readers as much or more than as stories that are to be read. The person that—in an earlier generation—carried Catcher in the Rye or On the Road in his hip pocket or who sat sullenly under a tree reading a book while dragging on a cigarette was making a kind of public statement.

To some degree I think this is still true, but I wonder if its been permanently displaced by digital culture. People make a statement by having old-fashioned books at all, not the specific texts that mark them off from readers of other books.

Of course, secret reading networks do exist. One wants to ask Bauerlein if he’s ever been online. But partly that’s the point. They exist facelessly on far flung digital networks rather than being part of the identity formation of groups within industrial-sized high schools.

Also, they have now mostly been displaced by video games. My son and his friends are sorted in two different ways: those who read books and those who don’t, and those who play Halo and those who don’t. The difference is important. Book readers are lumped together regardless of content of what they read—whereas in an earlier age of adolescene boys might have sorted themselves by whether they read Ken Kesey, Isaac Asimov, or Herman Melville. Gamers discriminate among themselves assiduously, marking themselves as belonging to different groups by the games they play and their competence at their choices.

To some degree I wonder how this works with e-book readers. The e-book itself shapes every text to a common and universal appearance. Thus, reading my e-book in the local coffeeshop, I can make a statement about myself as an e-book reader that will draw the attention of others and show my solidarity with others who are technologically sophisticated. But I can’t display the title of the individual book. The dividing line is not between Peyton Place and Moby Dick, but between digital and non-digital, with little room for specific self-display.

Nevertheless, none of this I think gainsays Bauerlein’s general opinion that iPulp is probably a very good thing in general. I browsed over the site. Not generally my cup of tea, but it should be right up the alley of the alienated middle schooler who likes that kind of thing. It looks to me that the site is set up for use on ipods and iphones, but I couldn’t figure out anyway to load to any other kind of reader or even to download to a computer.

Of course, that may itself be only a sign of my general unhip uncoolness when it comes to digital illiteracy. I’ll have to ask my 13 year old how to do it.

After he gets past teaching me how to play Call of Duty.

And Halo.

And Gears of War.

And…

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