A bookish pal and I met for lunch last week and discovered that both of our husbands -- well-educated and culturally aware men -- are both almost incapable of reading books cover to cover. Both of them, we discovered, are happy to read long narrative pieces (up to 15,000 words, at least in my highly scientific sample taken from my husband's browser history) in magazines, in newspapers, and online, but neither one of them has finished a complete book in months.
Recently David Ulin of the Los Angeles Times wrote an article about his failing ability to engage with narrative.
"Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves. This is what Conroy was hinting at in his account of adolescence, the way books enlarge us by giving direct access to experiences not our own. In order for this to work, however, we need a certain type of silence, an ability to filter out the noise. "
I don't want to go over everything Ulin said in his piece, the final point of which is that he will try, and hopes others also do, to carve out more of that "certain type of silence." It's not enough to simply be alone or in a quiet room. Ulin recognizes the meditative state needed for reading, the "contemplatio" that medieval monks once employed when engaged with a text. It's not the same as actively thinking about the text -- that state would be "ruminatio." The contemplative state requires a certain amount of self-abandon.
Could it be that men, those notorious commitmentphobes, are loath to go "all the way" with pages between covers? Or is it that men don't like to to contemplate giving anything up to someone else, even if it's just consciousness -- maybe especially if it's just consciousness. (Mr. Bethanne has been known to engage in NASCAR-like behavior in supermarket lines.)
Has anyone else out there thought about this? Read anything about it? I've been interested for a while in why men aren't reading fiction in particular. Perhaps some men who think in particularly linear fashion (read: my huzz) dislike the more free-floating ways of some novels. I dunno.
But I do know that once Mr. Bethanne has taken the time to read an entire book, he talks about it for months and years afterward. Hmmmmm.