One of my favourite internet quotes, which seems to be unattributed, is one that points out how weird reading is. “Staring at slices of marked tree for hours on end, hallucinating vividly.” I love it. It makes me appreciate my favourite pastime in a whole new way and glory in the bizarreness of it all.

The only thing that could make it weirder, I guess, is if you only read slices of tree that were marked by one specific half of the writerly population. Which, it turns out, is quite consistently what men do.

The latest findings from Nielsen BookData’s consumer research, commissioned by the Women’s Prize Trust, analysed 54,000 book purchases from last year and found that while women read books by both sexes equally, men overwhelmingly favour books by men. Male customers were responsible for less than a fifth of the sales of top 20 bestselling female writers (including Agatha Christie, Harper Lee, Colleen Hoover, Taylor Jenkins Reid and Lisa Jewell), while women were behind 44 per cent of the sales for the top 20 male writers. Just one of the top 20 women was purchased mainly by men – the maybe not coincidentally quite androgynously named Harper Lee. Seven of the top 20 men (Richard Osman, James Patterson, Prince Harry, James Clear, Matt Haig, Peter James and Harlan Coben) were bought mainly by women.

This is a consistent pattern, with much other research stretching back years confirming it. And to a certain extent, I understand why it should be. Women are raised from birth to efface themselves, to cater to others, to put themselves in other’s shoes so that they can best understand how to act to please (or at least not anger) the individual or the group. Naturally this carries on over into purely imaginative spaces too. Boys – not so much.

But. But – as boys grow older, do they not become more curious about the world, and the women in it? I mean, I know they get curious about women in very specific ways for a while, but after that – is there no impetus to find out what is going on in all those other books? What the world looks like from a fundamentally different perspective? Not that all books by women are shoutily by, for and/or about women (or women only), but there is surely almost always something to be gained by venturing outside your comfort zone and seeing something of how the other literal half lives, that can only be conveyed by reading what members of that literal half have written about, through and round it?

Narrative has been called “a primary act of mind”. In other words, we make sense of the world through story. We do not experience life as a series of unconnected, random events – we impose order and clarity on them by saying at some level “this happened because of that, that happened because of this”. To do anything else would be overwhelming and a source of great confusion, panic and misery. We see that in people suffering from dementia, where memory and narrative cohesion breaks down. Or with conditions like severe autism where information overload makes it impossible to see cause and effect, to create stories clearly, and where life is indeed experienced as an overpowering rush of events with no time to piece them together.

To read each other’s stories is to know each other on a profound and deeply human level. To hallucinate yourself, effectively, into another’s consciousness is to manage over a few hours and 300 pages what it takes years and years of close friendship to do. And books allow you to do it repeatedly, to live hundreds more lives, see the inner workings of a thousand more brains than (unless you are a very popular and hardworking psychiatrist with an immensely articulate clientele, perhaps) you are likely to experience otherwise in an entire lifetime.

When I think of the gulf of understanding that still separates boys from girls, men from women, when I think of the depth of ignorance (not stupidity – ignorance, albeit sometimes willed) that allows beliefs like “She was asking for it” or questions like “Why didn’t she leave?” or motherhood to be presented as the pinnacle of female fulfilment, it is hard not to wish that there could be more than just the occasional Jane Austen on the syllabus, or that men were more widely encouraged (for all the Women’s Prize Trust’s own efforts to address the gender bias) to pick up a book by a female author and see what goes on in there.

It might also address the problem periodically highlighted on social media under the hashtag #menwritingwomen, which is that they cannot. Under such threads will you find everything from a respected male literary author’s description of breasts that have “withdrawn into themselves” when their owner is depressed, to a prolific American male writer who describes a female corpse as having a tiny handbag in her vagina “just big enough to hold her driver’s license, a credit card and a few bucks”. Blimey. I bet she could tell a few stories.

QOSHE - The way men read books really explains a lot - Lucy Mangan
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The way men read books really explains a lot

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02.06.2024

One of my favourite internet quotes, which seems to be unattributed, is one that points out how weird reading is. “Staring at slices of marked tree for hours on end, hallucinating vividly.” I love it. It makes me appreciate my favourite pastime in a whole new way and glory in the bizarreness of it all.

The only thing that could make it weirder, I guess, is if you only read slices of tree that were marked by one specific half of the writerly population. Which, it turns out, is quite consistently what men do.

The latest findings from Nielsen BookData’s consumer research, commissioned by the Women’s Prize Trust, analysed 54,000 book purchases from last year and found that while women read books by both sexes equally, men overwhelmingly favour books by men. Male customers were responsible for less than a fifth of the sales of top 20 bestselling female writers (including Agatha Christie, Harper Lee, Colleen Hoover, Taylor Jenkins Reid and Lisa Jewell), while women were behind 44 per cent of the sales for the top 20 male writers. Just one of the top 20 women was purchased mainly by men – the maybe not coincidentally quite androgynously named Harper Lee. Seven of the top 20 men (Richard Osman, James Patterson,........

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