This morning, my husband and I got into a weighty conversation about what he’s going to read on our upcoming summer vacation. I, of course, have been planning my own plan of attack for a week: Finish Arcadia by Lauren Groff, bring along the summer reading issue of Tin House (with a quite amazing story by Holly Goddard Jones), and choose either The Liars’ Club (Mary Karr) or Prodigal Summer (Barbara Kingsolver) to round things out a bit. Or Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. (Help?)
My husband, on the other hand, says he’s probably going to go to the bookstore and just pick out a book of nonfiction. His view is that if he’s going to invest so much time in something, he wants a takeaway. (He’s so American.)
I’ve read that this is typical of a lot of men. Most of our famous fiction writers are male, but when it comes to the majority of non-writing men, they push fiction aside for a book about something that really happened. History. Biography. Usually about another man who doesn’t read any fiction either.
The problem for most men is that they don’t think fiction can teach them anything. They don’t believe there’s any inherent value to imagining something for a long period of time.
But my husband doesn’t fit so easily into that category. First, he’s a great writer on his own, and I’ve seen him on many a day stare out into space, so lost in his thoughts that the crumbs on the floor seem to exist in a distant galaxy. I blame part of his disillusionment on his English Master’s degree program, which tried to inculcate him into the philosophies of literary theorists and critics who claim that language doesn’t have power or meaning, except for the faulty assignations we’ve already been given by our society. (Does that make your head hurt a little bit? Me too.) We’re all, basically, in our own respective bubbles of meaning, never fully connecting to others through this faulty system called language. Oh, and there’s no God either.
(For the record, I was a student in the same Master’s program, and this stuff didn’t really bother me. I just loved sitting around a table, talking about literature.)
Not only was Husband frustrated by the critics who used too many words and too much jargon to communicate their ideas, but after he graduated, he couldn’t find a book of fiction that he really enjoyed. Contemporary literature can often be frustrating, with its obtuse endings, its caricatures of characters, its emphasis on the author’s ideas about plot rather than an actual plot.
[A discussion of what he's chosen to read will have to serve for a later date. Pynchon's Mason & Dixon (ugh!), Eugenides' Middlesex (fairly boring and not enough about sex), Wallace's Infinite Jest (cool for a while, but tiring), McEwan's Enduring Love (British. Just really really British). We haven't yet gotten to the question of why he, like other men, isn't reading women, but I'm saving that up for a special occasion.]
We figured out that he’s looking for a good story, kind of vast, and relatable, lovable characters. That doesn’t seem like such a tall order, but in actuality, it’s what every piece of fiction yearns for, what most rarely achieve.
I started throwing out suggestions. Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin. Jonathan Franzen, Freedom. Tolstoy, War and Peace. Charles Dickens. All men, for Godsakes, but something, anything to make him believe in the power and importance of fiction again.
And then we figured it out. The Marriage Plot, Eugenides, circa 2011, which is really an homage to all those 19th century writers. It’s practically medicine, and I trust it will work.
But after that, dammit, he better read some Lauren Groff.
Image: “Modern Man” by Craig A. Rodway via Flickr using a Creative Commons license.