Can You Spot a Sexist at the Bookstore?

On Behalf of | April 22, 2015 | Gender Discrimination, Harassment

Ever since I was in high school, I’ve spent a significant amount of my free time reading.  I read in a range of subjects, including novels, history, and cultural criticism, but my favorite category is biography. This lifelong hobby made Chloe Angyal’s recent article, “Why Don’t Men Read Books By Women,” all the more unsettling.  Angyal begins her piece by describing the reactions she’s received to her year-long pledge only to read books by female authors.  One male friend asked Angyal why she would “limit” herself in that manner.  Angyal explains that she decided to read only female authors because she had previously read too few works by women—a problem Angyal states is frequently most severe in men.  Angyal ends by asking what the larger implications are for society that men, in particular, usually don’t read books by female authors.  She co-opts an analysis by novelist Robin Black, author of Life Drawing and If I Loved You I Would Tell You This, that concludes men’s reluctance to read female novelists is indicative of men’s broader distrust of women’s voices.

I agree with Angyal’s assumption that someone’s literary choices are indicative, to a limited extent, of the voices they consider to be relevant, but I disagree that because a male reader tends to shy away from female authors, that reader likely disregards the voices of his female co-workers and other women with whom he interacts.

People choose to read for a variety of reasons.  For example, I frequently select biographies of people who I feel have used their lives to make the world a better place for the rest of us.  Most recently, I’ve read biographies of Jim Henson, Johnny Cash, Billy Graham, Keith Richards, and Steve Jobs.  They’re obviously all white males largely from working class backgrounds, much like my own.  I won’t try to defend my biographical selections; They’re admittedly too narrow.  Although I frequently read fiction by female authors (Carson McCuller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is one of the few novels I’ve read multiple times), my biographical choices reveal that I too am guilty of picking books about subjects who look a lot like me.  It’s something I am going to make a deliberate decision to change.  As Angyal committed herself to reading only female novels, I’m going to make a point of reading biographies about women.  Still, my tendency to select biographies of people who have backgrounds and experiences that remind me of my own doesn’t translate into a disregard of women, as Angyal suggests.  In reading biographies of people who have similar backgrounds to my own, I’m exploring the understandings and identity I have developed regarding my family, the Southern culture in which I came of age, and other rural folkways that shaped who I am today.  Although I’ve likely failed to challenge this sense of self by not deliberately seeking out different perspectives, that doesn’t indicate that I disregard the literary voices of individuals who don’t share this same background, and it certainly doesn’t reveal a broad disregard of women.

I do, however, recognize that both our bookshelves and our society benefit from a wide range of perspectives, and I’m thankful that Angyal’s article has forced me to acknowledge that my shelf looks a little too much like myself.