Columns > Published on January 27th, 2015

The Lost Boys of YA: Are Young Men Reading Less?

A friend of mine who recently finished six years of military service used to read on the bus between training exercises. It seems like a pretty innocuous thing to do. The ride from one base to another was four hours long, so he brought a book to entertain himself. At least, that was his original intent when he started out as a 19-year-old private. He quickly found that his peers viewed reading as a strictly feminine activity, and a laughable one at that. Tired of the constant harassment that it provoked, he eventually stopped bringing books on the bus.

This incident, although anecdotal and somewhat extreme, is not inconsistent with other outside data on adolescent reading habits:

  • A Canadian study published in the Alberta Journal of Educational Research found that 24 percent of second grade students thought of reading as a “feminine activity,” and later, additional studies have mirrored that result.
  • Only 12.5% of teens report that their fathers read more often than their mothers, and reading rates among young men have been dropping.
  • Guys Read, a group dedicated to reversing these trends, notes that boys of every age group have scored worse than girls on reading tests for the last 30 years.
  • Pew research conducted in 2013 reported that men read fewer books of any genre— 21 percent fewer in the category of YA titles, to be precise.

Based on the information at hand, it's difficult to pinpoint how much of this is the result of cultural norms, and how much might be chalked up to other unknown factors.

Boys reading and asking for more relatable protagonists does nothing to jeopardize the goals of feminism, and they shouldn't be discouraged from making those kinds of requests.

For instance, while some studies found that boys viewed reading as a gendered activity, others came to a totally different conclusion. In 2004, researchers Smith and Wilhelm tested the feminization theory in schools and found that male student’s disinterest in books derived from a lack of engagement with the material or difficulties with comprehension. In an earlier study, some admitted that they saw the books assigned in school as "inauthentic" and it was this that pushed them away from reading, not the perception of it as a "girly" activity. Students were presented with the fictional profile of an avid reader, whom Smith and Wilhelm purposefully characterized with “non-masculine traits.” Instead of criticizing his habits, students had an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the profile.

Some of the statistics listed in the bullets above ran in a 2011 New York Times article by Robert Lipsyte titled “Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope?” Shortly after, Lipsyte was skewered by The Mary Sue for complaining about a lack of "positive role models for male literacy" when publishing has traditionally been dominated by men and most YA titles still contain male characters. I admit that some of what Lipsyte has to say comes off as heavy-handed, but we don't have to throw the baby out with the bath water. Even framed in an unflattering tone, Lipsyte isn't totally incorrect in asserting that many boys and young men feel disinclined to pick up a book in their free time. Boys reading and asking for more relatable protagonists does nothing to jeopardize the goals of feminism, and they shouldn't be discouraged from making those kinds of requests.

Over Christmas break, I took the opportunity to question several visiting male friends about their favorite books when we were in high school. The titles that came up were mostly science fiction ala Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. But not a single designated "young adult" book garnered a mention. When prodded, several answered that as teenagers, they felt uncomfortable and even a little embarrassed in the young adult section. In 2014, New York Magazine profiled Aaron Bergh, author of the Real Men Love YA blog. On the blog, Bergh opens up about buying a YA book with a girl in a "flowing red dress" on the cover under the stares of everyone in the store. But Bergh adds:

I didn't give up. I bought more books and began reading daily...I read Divergent. I read Blood Red Road. I read Delirium...I loved them. I regretted being so late to the sorting.

What do you think? Have you ever been discouraged from picking up a book that seemed too feminine? Or does gender have nothing to do with reading habits?

About the author

Leah Dearborn is a Boston-based writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in international relations from UMass Boston. She started writing for LitReactor in 2013 while paying her way through journalism school and hopping between bookstore jobs (R.I.P. Borders). In the years since, she’s written articles about everything from colonial poisoning plots to city council plans for using owls as pest control. If it’s a little strange, she’s probably interested.

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