Super Manly Book Clubs Are the Latest in Fragile Masculinity

Men fear books.

Prose is soppy and sodden and drips with love and sympathy—dangerous emotions that manly men forswear. Men are supposed to have big brains, firm and rigid with knowledge, yet to get that knowledge you must bathe in the damp, dank, dampness of bookish eau de limpness. It is a terrifying conundrum for any man—a trial by fire made all the worse because it is actually a trial by icky moisture.

But fear not, men! The New York Times has the solution to all your books-have-cooties fears. As writer Jennifer Miller reports: “Men Have Book Clubs, Too“! Yes, of course, most book clubs are for women to read debased chick lit about love and purses and other things that men can speak not of. But some select, better book clubs have sprung up (rigidly) just for men. The Man Book Club (actual name) in Marin County, CA includes lawyers and engineers, all of whom, to a man, are men. They read books only by men, in which the main characters are men—tomes like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid and Jack Manly’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Penis. (Okay, I possibly made the last one up.)

This is all very silly, obviously, and the article itself is meant to be light-hearted. It’s funny, isn’t it, to think that men might read and then talk about what they’ve read? It’s cute that these guys, explicitly, don’t take recommendations from their mothers, because, mothers, amiright? Everyone knows once you carry a baby to term you become a brainless bag of hormones which suck the intellect right out of a man. Because nothing says intellect like rating your books on a “five-hand-grenade system for ‘manliness'” as they do at the International Ultra Manly Book Club in Kansas City, focused on literary depictions of what it means to be a man (though these guys do in fact read books by women).

There’s nothing innately wrong with having a book club focused on manliness—and certainly nothing wrong, of course, with men joining book clubs. But there maybe is something wrong with framing the idea of men reading, or joining book clubs, as some sort of exercise in outré anthropology or goofy cultural excavation. Okay, you’ve got a book club with a bunch of guy friends; that’s nice, more power to you. The NYC Gay Guys’ Book Club sounds lovely, and they’re reading James Baldwin—can’t fault that.

But if, in many of these clubs, the idea is to make it okay for men to read books, why do they have to essentially name their book club the Manly Man Testosterone Muscle Brain Book Club For Only Guys Only, No Women Ever, Go Away? Are they actually, in that case, pushing back against cultural stereotypes about men’s discomfort with emotion, as one member of the Houston Men’s Book Club suggests men’s book clubs do? Or is it just a kind of hyperbolic performance of masculine panic, in which, supposedly, to read a book—or, God forbid, maybe feel an emotion—a guy has to first clear his throat 12 times and ritually grunt “I’m a man!” lest his manliness shrivel up beneath him?

There’s also a real problem with setting up a book club devoted to manliness in which writing by women is excluded. Because the fact is, in my experience as a man and (dare I admit) a reader, the most daring, thoughtful, and insightful discussions of masculinity have been written by women.

This isn’t some sort of bizarre accident. It’s rooted in the same cultural givens which led some significant number of men to think that they’d look more manly if they put the word “MANLY” in the title of their book group. Women, for their own well-being, have to know how masculinity and the patriarchy work; men, for their own perceived well-being, have to keep themselves ignorant. 

As a result, the most searching examination of the charm, the neediness, and the preposterousness of the male academic isn’t to be found in the bazillion novels by male academics, but in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse . . . or possibly in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Similarly, if you want to learn about the masculine fear of dissolving into an oozy, icky lack of rigidity, you could do worse than check out Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis—alien tentacle sex and all. And if you want novels exploring the problems men have in expressing emotions and love, there are shelves and shelves and shelves of romance novels for you, most of them at least half-written from a male point of view. Try Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s Again and Cecilia Grant’s A Gentlemen Undone, for starters.

What’s that? You say your male book club thinks romance novels are unmanly and that they will possibly corrupt you and turn you all feminized and squishy? Oddly that’s just what the guys in Octavia Butler’s novels worry will happen to them if they have the aforementioned tentacle sex. “I’ve never felt anything like that in my life,” Joseph shouts in Dawn after the alien Oankali uses their tentacles to manipulate his pleasure centers. You can see the manly book group guys bellowing something similar as they back hurriedly away from Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness or Toni Morrison’s Beloved.  

The ultimate point is that reading, if it means anything, is about getting outside yourself, connecting with new people, new experiences, and new emotions. That’s why it seems unmanly; men, are, after all, supposed to be solid, firm, inviolate, and inviolable. The manly book groups the Times profiles want to read, but also want to be manly. So they exclude women’s words and women’s concerns, lest they turn into some frightful something else, less manly—and more free.

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