Men reading literary fiction (or not)

Monday, December 17, 2018

For most of my life I have observed with alarm that men don’t read literary fiction. Nowadays, one does well to find men who read actual books of any sort–detective fiction, biographies, histories–but it’s literary fiction I’m focusing on. Why? Because, as has been noted by many cultural analysts over many years, good fiction stirs up depths of understanding of human nature. Moreover, it trains the ear for language, and tunes the perceptions for excellence of expression. It guards against sentimentality, the enemy of true understanding.

I don’t know why so few men read literary fiction (as opposed to mass-market fiction). Maybe they somehow associate it with being effeminate. Maybe boys just aren’t introduced to enough good fiction when they are young. In any case, I think it’s an alarming trend, and especially so for preachers. I am thrilled that so many young male pastors seem to like my Crucifixion and Advent books, but I’d like to see them reading good fiction and poetry also.

A close male friend of mine, successful in the financial world, considerably younger than I, devours theological and biblical studies, as well as World War II histories, but does not read any fiction. He is getting ready to change his life and go into the not-for-profit world. He frequently asks me what he should read. As a response I took the opportunity to start forming a list of books that I think would be good start-ups for a man who is serious about life and Christian faith but ignorant of literature. If he reads even one or two of these, that will be a gain. He can give the rest away and whoever gets them will perhaps benefit from them. It’s given me a lot of pleasure to make this list, anyway.

Here it is. Most of these books have a hint (or in some cases more than a hint) of Christian faith—or, at least, seeking after faith. Most of them are relatively short and, I think, more accessible to begin with than other books by their authors which are often longer and weightier. I have myself, personally, been moved by all of them. They seem to me like books that would appeal to men. So here it is for what it is worth—in no particular order:

Portrait of a Young Man, by James Joyce
Billy Budd, by Herman Melville
House of Sand and Fog, by Andre Dubus III
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Freedomland, by Richard Price
House of Prayer #2, by Mark Richard
The Secret Sharer, by Joseph Conrad
A Burnt-Out Case, by Graham Greene
The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope (this one is very long but a great read)
The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy
The Second Coming, by Walker Percy
No Country for Old Men and All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy
The Statement, Black Robe, and Lies of Silence by Brian Moore

More recently added:
Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain, by Barney Norris
Redeployment, by Phil Klay

and finally, two historical novels about ancient Crete and the Greek isles by the great, unexcelled master of the genre:
The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea, by Mary Renault

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