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Measurable versus Unmeasurable

September 6, 2014

Some readers may be familiar with a US website called The Art of Manliness, devoted to all things gentlemanly. A couple of years ago, two of its contributors – Kate and Brett McKay – wrote an article encouraging men to read more fiction. “While many men have stacks of books accumulating on their “to-read” pile,” they said, “chances are that pile is composed primarily of non-fiction tomes. For the past 20 years or so, the publishing industry has noted a precipitous decline in the number of men reading fiction. Some reports show that men make up only 20% of fiction readers in America today.”

This is a question I have addressed before: why do men generally prefer non-fiction to fiction? It is one I have to ask myself as well, because, I have to admit, I do feel I’m getting more out of a non-fiction than a fiction book. Why? And am I right?

Last summer, I finished three of the best modern novels I’ve read in years – Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, his Freedom, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. I also read quite a lot of non-fiction. But undoubtedly, I’ve forgotten most of what I ‘learned’ from the latter. The former affected me in a way I’ll carry around for years, if not – on some level – permanently (I’m not saying they made me a better human being, of course – that would be a whopping cliché, and unjustifiable).

What I think it comes down to is the difference between measurable and unmeasurable. In principle, what I’m getting out of the non-fiction can be gauged. Say it’s a book on the life of Harold Wilson. When I’ve finished it, I could take an examination on the subject, or I could enter a quiz show like Mastermind, with Wilson as my specialist subject, and get points for every right answer. The same isn’t true of a work of fiction. Even where I get together with others in a book group to discuss, say, The Corrections, none of us is assessing each other’s comments in terms of measurable familiarity with the details of the text. Yes, we are doing something valuable (probably), but not something that can be measured.

To return to the male/ female fiction/ non-fiction divide, is the obsession with measuring intrinsically male? Or is it a social construct? On the surface, it sounds very Freudian. On the other hand, several decades ago in the West (and still in most of the world today), men did different kinds of work to women. They were the ones who took the prestigious exams and did all sorts of accounting and DIY. When I was at school, in the 1970s, it was still common for girls to be discouraged from studying scientific subjects, on the (mostly unspoken) grounds that their brains weren’t equipped for high-level numeracy. Today, there is still some way to go before women and men achieve full equality, but thankfully, no intelligent person believes that any more.

The question is, does that mean we’ll see a gradually increasing parity between the sexes in terms of their relative preference for non-fiction as against fiction? Can we expect women to stop reading so much fiction, comparatively speaking, and men to stop reading so much non-fiction? If so, it’ll probably be evidence that the obsession with measuring is learned rather than natural.

The other possibility is that, in the process of abandoning their preferred textual medium, both genders might give up reading altogether. Henceforth, they might just text and tweet and scour the net for ten-second videos of people falling over.

 

 

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