Remember back in middle school when, come book report time, the boys did their book reports about the Lord of the Flies while the girls were all about Little Women? It seems that ever since the opposite sex had cooties, so did the books that were “meant” for them. Publishers, teachers, and even parents and friends have been reinforcing the notion of “books for girls” and “books for boys” since before we even had a firm grasp on our ABCs.
Given the centuries of a male-dominated literary world, it might seem strange to make the case for women to read these male-centric books when, instead, you could spending time reading only female writers, and giving your support to nuanced depictions of ladies in lit. And, I admit… it is weird, especially considering that “traditionally male” books tend to be books in which women are glaringly absent or else portrayed as mere objects, sexual fantasies, or in other variously insulting ways.
So, why should we self-respecting women bother with these books at all? Well… first of all, not all of them are such perfect examples of misogyny and the marginalization of women. Second, if you haven’t noticed, our world’s history is… um… kind of sexist. Reading the books that give a little insight into these foundations can be as important as reading the books that tear them down. And then, of course, there’s the argument that Sun Tzu makes in the “manliest” of books The Art of War: “Begin by seizing something which your opponent holds dear; then he will be amenable to your will.” So, watch out Lord of the Flies, here we come!
The Art of War by Sun Tzu
Because what’s “manlier” than war, amirite? I’m pretty sure that’s what most guys are thinking when they pick up this classic for the first time, only to be disappointed that so much for Tzu’s advice is actually about how to keep the warring to a minimum.T zu says it best himself: "The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting." Nonetheless, it’s the book on war strategy, and, seeing how much of our history is tied up in war, it’s an essential read for understanding a great deal of our global history.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Man versus Beast. Man versus Nature. And beards and chest-pounding and loud manly grunts or something. Moby-Dick is the man’s man of novels. It has adventure and indomitable forces of nature and giant whale-shaped metaphors... you know, things women clearly could never understand as evidenced by the glaring absence of women in the novel. Happily, we’re seeing more and more novels of epic adventure with women strongly at the fore, but Moby-Dick is much much more than an adventure novel. Its contents are greater in scope than the behemoth whale of its title. You could read it a thousand times and come away with a thousand different meanings. So, it’s worth the read, even if you have to go through and add an “s” at the beginning of a few of the 2,000 occurrences of “he” in the novel, or decide to imagine that the narrator is actually a woman who only says “Call me Ishmael” to hide her true identity.
The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara
Adventure, self-discovery, and a motorcycle? Yep, betting the publisher’s were banking on a pretty heavily male audience for this one. But, turns out… the motorcycle doesn’t last, the self-discovery becomes a discovery of the real lives of South Americans, and the adventures go from lighthearted and fun to sowing the seeds of revolution in the mind of one of the most impactful revolutionaries in history. Motorcycles might come with a whole lot of gendered implications, but developing a sense of social awareness… that’s just for everybody. Read it.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Oh, maaan, is this book full of manly manish manners. Achebe’s hero is devoted to all things “manly,” including a hitting his wives and providing absolutely no emotional support for his sons. And, boy, does he suffer the consequences. The book stands back and lets the reader shake her head at the misogyny and chauvinism of a patriarchal society right before it smacks you in the face with complicated guilt and regret when... well... things fall apart... and that problematic society is brutalized at the hands of colonialism. It’s the must-iest of must reads for everyone.
The Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Don’t watch the movie. The comic is better. Comics and the comic book-loving crowd have come a long way since The Watchmen was first published back in 1986. And at the time Watchmen was actually fairly forward-thinking for the comics world when it comes to women. First of all, you’ve got more female superheroes in the Watchmen crew than you see even in some comics today. On top of that, there’s an openly lesbian character (who, realistically, gets kicked out of the heroes club once she’s outed) and a pretty clear critique of the way women are treated and portrayed in the comics genre and nerd culture. Also, the comic deals with some seriously serious and interesting issues about superheroes and accountability and government and… a whole bunch of other stuff. There are still, of course, some gender issues, but even these are somewhat interesting to look at from the perspective of today’s remaining problems in comics.
Native Son by Richard Wright
If you want to (or already have) read James Baldwin or Zora Neale Hurston, then you’re gonna want to read Richard Wright, too. His book titles are all very manly — Native Son… Black Boy. They’re very much about growing up, as a black man in America. Native Son is a worthy read in its own right, but it’s also Wright’s role among his contemporaries that makes him a necessary read. James Baldwin wrote an entire book based on a criticism of Native Son in his Notes of a Native Son. And Wright was a critic of Zora Neale Hurston’s writing, with some subtly gendered critiques, too. Reading Wright, among his contemporaries, offers up a well-rounded view of the emergent Black literary voices of the 1930s and of what women writers like Hurston were up against.
Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
Speaking of James Baldwin and Native Son … Everyone should read James Baldwin because he’s brilliant and prophetic and brilliant (did I already say that?). As a gay man of color he doesn’t exactly fit into the “traditionally male” category (that is, the historical tradition that endows straight white men with all that power and privilege at the expense of the marginalized “others.”) But his insights into black life, specifically the lives of black men, in America are invaluable.
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos
Mambo Kings is one sexy book. Literally. I mean, there’s a lot of sex in it, with some pretty explicit details, too. It makes the “traditionally male” list for its quintessential “man who loves women” theme, as a parade of naked women turns out to be a coping mechanism alongside alcohol for the book’s protagonist. But the men who love the book might be surprised to find that the book is in many ways a critique of the way women are treated in machismo culture. It’s about the way men like this relate to women. And its through the side character of Delores, “a woman of intelligence a beauty literally trapped inside a crush of men,” that you get the strongest critique this problematic relation to women.
Native Speaker by Chang Rae-Lee
Native Speaker is largely a novel about the difficulties of “becoming American,” but it’s also largely about men and their sons. Seeing as some of us date and marry and raise children with them, and some of us raise them, it’s probably a good idea for us to read books that offer insights into men and their relationships with their sons, especially when they’re navigating other real-life difficulties, like death in the family or feeling strange in the world. Native Speaker might take men as its protagonists, but it’s focus is on a issues we can all relate to. Also, it has spies...
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
What? Did you really think I wasn’t going to include this one? Chest-pounding, survivalist “I Am Man” novel that it is, it’s also a pretty brilliant exploration of the base cruelty of humanity’s survival instinct, and an interesting simplified take on how we organize our social structures accordingly. Some call the book the quintessential book about boys, and seeing how popular it actually is among boys means it’s probably a great place to start to get an idea about what’s going on in those male brains. Being completely about boys, it also begs you to imagine how the story might have been different if it had been only girls on the island...
Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel Cervantes
What better book than one that places chauvinistic chivalry and weeping damsels rightfully in the realm of crazy, making them as ridiculous as a self-styled knight errant “tilting at windmills,” as they say? It’s kind of a thousand-page excuse to laugh at the guy at the gym who “valiantly” insists on “helping” you with your free weights. Oh, right, it’s also a classic… and for a damn good reason, too.
Edinburgh by Alexander Chee
There are a whole host of gendered reasons that sexual violence and trauma against boys is overlooked and even straight-up ignored. Well, Alexander Chee isn’t having it. Sure, there are other novels that talk about this issue in a scene or two, or with careful subtlety. Edinburgh doesn’t do that. It is the focus of the novel, but it also isn’t just some brash careless take on trauma. The novel is also about love and fear and being a human, not just a victim.
House Made of Dawn by M. Scott Momaday
There are lots of amazing Native American female writers (and you should read them!). So why read Momaday specifically? Because he was one of the first Native American writers to breakthrough into the American mainstream and he did it with the up close and unapologetic House Made of Dawn. House Made of Dawn is harrowing… It doesn’t hold back as it portrays the very real, often tragic, lives of men on the reservation, based on Momaday’s own experiences and the real lives of others.
Image: Claire Joines