Dispatches | April 15, 2013

The May issue of GQ Magazine is out, and along with lots of advertisements, columns, and articles about men’s fashion, food, sex, style, entertainment and all manner of other goodies, there is a feature on books. This is a book list called “The 21 Books from the 21st Century Every Man Should Read” and includes novels by Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, Cormac McCarthy, Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson, George Saunders, and Jhumpa Lahiri.

The four woman listed here are the only women included.

This was significantly better than Esquire’s recent list of 75 books Every Man Should Read, which despite having more than fifty additional choices and expanding beyond the last thirteen years, actually managed to be even more myopic in focusing on white American males than the GQ list. Esquire, which recently declared a focus on “men’s fiction” in its editorial decision making, took a good bit of flack for this. I’m sure you aren’t surprised.

Lists like this, intended to be The Things You Should Do, upset people who care about literature. It’s hard not to look at lists like this and be, if not offended, disappointed. In a culture that expresses empathy for rapists, promotes “slut shaming” and generally treats woman like second-class citizens, it’s reasonable for educated and thoughtful people to be furious with GQ and Esquire for having such a narrow view of what men should read. Why not encourage men to read Ceremony or Giovanni’s Room or The House on Mango Street or There Eyes Were Watching God or Kindred or any Asian writers not named Murakami? Or any writers from South America not named Borges or Marquez? Or any writer from the entire African continent other than Chinua Achebe?

Probably because GQ and Esquire aren’t truly interested in American arts and letters. The era of writers building their reputations by publishing in these men’s magazines, and others like it, is long over. What these magazines are interested in, and always have been, is selling products. And their main product is the Well Rounded Man. The Well Rounded Man has these books in his home (or condo), might have read them but certainly has them on display either way next to photos of his skiing and whitewater rafting adventures, which of course impresses friends and family and colleagues, because he also drives a luxury car, wears designer clothes, drinks top shelf vodka, and knows how to impress women. He’s generally quite busy being an all-around good guy pursing the noble American dream.

Lists like this serve two purposes: one, they are incredibly easy and fast to put together on a deadline and, two, they are guaranteed to get an indignant response from the reading public. Think of any list, and you’ll almost immediately think of who was “slighted” by not being on it. You might even have a stellar postmodernist interdisciplinary multicultural post-(insert a five dollar word here) about the list and why it’s deeply offensive to a group of people who are too busy living their lives to know or care what you’re talking about.

Here’s the third thing lists do: they make us feel insecure. Maybe, then, it’s naturally for a magazine focusing on buying things to make a better you (which can always be improved!) is the natural place for a list of books you should read.

On a weekly basis, I feel insecure about what books I have not read. I’m serious. The University of Missouri offers a PhD in creative writing, and many of my friends in town are poet-scholars who are neck deep in literary theory, or their comprehensive reading examinations, or finishing up their dissertation, and in all ways, they are fully immersing themselves into literature. None of my friends thinks about making me feel inadequate. That’s not on them. That’s just me. Online, there are writers who seem to post daily through their social media outlets about everything they are reading and thinking and writing. Six days out of the week, I’m amazed. But on that seventh day, I mentally curl into a fetal position and wonder when everyone is going to figure out that I’m a fraud.

The anxiety is felt in the classroom all the time. As a teacher, the only books I’m fairly confident all of my students have read are The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird. They admit, softly, to loving the Harry Potter books, their love of the series stated with shy chagrin. As a graduate student, I didn’t want to wilt under the stunned gaze of my professors when I had to admit I hadn’t read William Faulkner.

Since 2009, I’ve kept track of all the books I read in a given year. This year, for the first time, I made a list of books I planned to read in 2013. Figuring I’d catch up on all the books I haven’t read but should (ugh), I made a list combining the Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels and The Reader’s List, minus the Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard books, and figured I would just pick and choose books from this list throughout the year. Three months in, I might have read three books from this list. Maybe.

Why can’t I stick with the list? Because there always new books and stories that come across my desk that demand my immediate attention. A new issue of a literary magazine comes out. A lost classic a friend raves about. A new story collection. A new poetry collection. A new release I’ve been eager to read (Jonathan Dee!). A book a friend hands me. A book a friend mails me. A sudden urge to re-read a book of stories I love (Andre Dubus!). Let alone all the basketball news, publishing news, political stories, all the great longform journalism online. There’s so much, and nothing I want to miss, and so I skip around and my hybrid reading list collects just a little bit more dust.

Maybe it’s just part of being a writer, but being told what to read and why usually makes me cross my arms and cock my head and say “Oh, really?” I was this way as an undergrad, in graduate school, and still today when the “you haven’t read this?” question comes with just a little bit of contempt. Bouncing along this spectrum of emotional responses—anxiety, defiance, fear, anger, discovery, and on and on and on—leads to some dark moments. But it also leads to unearthing books that I never would have read if my reading mind wasn’t open to possibilities, to wandering off the beaten path and taking a chance on a book (or an author) I’ve never heard of before.

I make lists all the time: reading lists, Things to Do Today, grocery lists, and so forth. These are lists of failure. Even with a grocery list, I often go home and realize as I’m putting away the groceries that I had, somehow, forgotten something. I need lists, I don’t need lists. I make lists, I ignore lists. Here’s the thing: it has to be my list. It can’t be one defined by GQ, or Esquire, or any other magazine or organization stepping in and saying This is What We Should Read. My list, like any writer’s, has to come from my own sense of curiosity and, yes, anxiety. Others can influence me and make suggestions—no one should be close-minded—but others can’t define it.

We make our own reading lists, our own Must Reads. The rest is just noise.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

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