Written by: Catherine Casey
Recently, I ran an event on a college campus where I gave out free books. No catch, no signup code or scan or Instagram follow needed—just ten kids on the side of the main road of class buildings heckling people to take free books.
I was astounded by how many people were uninterested in them.
On a college campus, it’s almost a feat to give out anything for free without student interest. I have a dresser filled with free shirts that I only ever wear to the gym that I’ve collected in my four years at the University of Connecticut. Students will form lines stretching down the halls of the Student Union, not even knowing what they’re waiting for, just knowing that it’s free. And yet, there were still people who brushed off our calls for free books.
Actually, I should probably amend that statement. Boys were brushing off our calls for free books. Female-presenting students were more than willing to take one book, or five, after asking for recommendations from me or their fellow readers that flocked around our mishmash of genres on the side of the road. And of course, there were still outliers in this generalized statement—this isn’t to say there are no men in the whole world who enjoy books. However, in most cases, boys would answer our calls with laughs or shrugs or echoes of statements like “I can’t read!” And suddenly, I was back in middle school when it felt like all of a sudden, reading became just a girl thing.
It’s not entirely the fault of the younger male reading demographic that once adolescence hits that there seems to be a drop-off between boy and girl readers. A 2004 study found that beginning at age nine and continuing into high school, there is a significant decrease in readership in boys when compared to their female peers (Jacobson). Many listed factors contribute to this—ranging from the difference between the ways boys and girls are socialized to read and their analysis of subject matter to the fact that most boys see only women reading in media and day-to-day life. I also think we must account for what boys are offered as reading materials.
Even when there is no basis for the marker, many reading materials for young people become gendered. Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy is by no means a book just for girls, but it has become feminine coded through marketing and the media culture that surrounded its release and that of its subsequent film adaptations. Most series for young adults, once exiting the middle-grade landscape, are suspiciously feminine-coded. As a young reader, I noticed this shift. I would often think that male readership was really holding onto the threads provided by Rick Riordan’s multiple mythological series, Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and the massive backlist of Mike Lupica. Even then, girls read these books, too—but it never seemed that the opposite was all that encouraged.
Was it because these other books had first-person female protagonists? That never seemed an issue for girls when the inverse was true, when looking at the success of series like Harry Potter and the aforementioned Percy Jackson. According to education writer Linda Jacobson, boys are much less likely to read fiction altogether. They gravitate towards nonfiction books that serve a function rather than fiction, unlike their female counterparts. As teenagers, this rejection of fiction translates into disinterest in assigned reading materials and a penchant for more subversive subjects and mediums—like graphic novels (especially those more based in horror) and magazines. However, Jacobson was speaking on this in 2014, and I think it has different ramifications in 2022.
So our teenage boys aren’t reading. And then they go to college, and our college boys aren’t reading. So what are they doing? Factoring in the notion that boys are more geared toward functional literature, maybe this is where we see the Internet Age come into play. If boys aren’t reading physical books, maybe they’re just reading something else.
YouTube has become the information epicenter for many young people, along with Wikipedia. I think you’re much more likely to see a young man watching a video essay, sometimes up to three hours long, deconstructing Phillip’s Joker (2019) or the lore behind the newest nerd culture infatuation property, than a book. This is an essentially similar act to reading an essay. It’s just filmed and read at you by a talking head speaker. When we frame discussions of fiction in a narratively nonfiction lens, we see why it would be more common to see a man watching a video about a movie based on a book than reading the book itself.
If books are feminine-coded, then film has become masculine-coded with the rise of “film-bro” culture and the nerd culture movement behind the Marvel and Star Wars franchises that have always been male-dominated. Why is fiction fine on screen, but rejected when given as reading materials?
And how do we get boys to read? There is no lacking of “male” coded books. And yet, even a major in English has become specifically feminine-coded, especially if the person getting the major is a writer. I have never understood this divide, and it fails to account for the many people I know in the major who are men or masculine-leaning. But outside of the English major, there seems to be a pervasive social attitude that boys do not read, and that they don’t want to.
Reading is good for you. Not to sound like a PSA from the early 2000s, or an English major snob, but it is. Reading broadens your vocabulary, sharpens your mind, and lessens stress. And for some reason, we as a society have deemed that only young girls may experience these benefits when looking at school-age children. Do we need some wunderbook to come out and sweep young boys across the nation? Do we need the next Diary of a Wimpy Kid? Should we change curriculums to include more books suited to the functional readership of boys? How do we continue to foster the love of reading that is more likely to have a hold on boys still in elementary school?
Formally, I believe that everyone should read if they want to. Informally, it makes me sad to think that outside factors come together to kill the love for reading that young boys may have. It didn’t bother me or anger me that boys brushed me off when I called for them to come get free books. I wasn’t mad when one particular student told me he had never read a book before, or when another one said he had only ever read two. It made me sad that this was the kind of speech that was normalized around the male reading experience. It’s not cool to read, it’s not special or unique or altogether something that makes you better than other people—but it’s also not cool not to read. I fear that may be the dialogue we’ve created, and I do not know how we move on from here.