When I was younger, I looked to literature to show me how to become all kinds of things I wasn’t: the beats for how to be cool, Waugh and Wodehouse for how to be British, Capote for how to be fabulous. And now, thanks to the Art of Manliness blog, I am provided with a reading list that will instruct me in “How to Be a Man”!
As it turns out, reading my way to manhood is a lot like my 11th-grade curriculum (“Moby-Dick,” “A Farewell to Arms,” “Self-Reliance,” “The Federalist Papers”), and apparently, also crucial to one’s masculine development are Theodore Roosevelt, political philosophy from hundreds or even thousands of years ago (Plato’s “Republic,” “Leviathan,” “The Prince”) and World War II.
What isn’t manly? Well, women, naturally. Books by female authors occupy three slots on the list of 100 titles — the same number as biographies of Teddy Roosevelt. Of these, we have Mary Shelley and Harper Lee, both famous for two things — producing a single work of fiction and having the provenance of that work consistently (if unfairly) questioned — and Ayn Rand, who is to traditionally female attributes like empathy and interpersonal relationships what Grover Norquist is to functioning government. Jews don’t make the cut either — despite his status as our greatest living author and his landmark contributions to the field of masturbation, Philip Roth didn’t make it onto the list. (Norman Mailer and Joseph Heller squeaked by, but only in their WWII incarnations.) And certainly not blacks — not a single African-American author appears on the list. James Baldwin? Not manly. Kurt Vonnegut? Very, very manly. In fact, if his prominence here is any indication, cracking open “Slaughterhouse-Five” is the literary equivalent of a double oophorectomy, or years of testosterone therapy.
Thank God for Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” — “a guide for how to live a life of pure decadence” — or I’d think being a man was all about sober responsibility, reluctantly killing people and sleeping outside on a rock. Which prompts the question: If that’s what men need to know, what about women? What would you put on a women’s reading list? Would we have Jane Austen after Jane Austen, or is it possible that maybe, just maybe, “The Great Gatsby” has something to say to women, too?