Thought Catalog
January 23, 2015

The Best Thing About Zuckerberg’s Reading Program: He’s A Guy

Report This Article
What is the issue?
iStockphoto / Visvasnc
iStockphoto / Visvasnc

Never Say ‘Men Don’t Read’

It may be the publishing world’s most irrational lie.

I mean, would you leave half the population’s money on the table? Me, either.

But you’ve heard it, of course: “Men don’t read. Doesn’t matter what book you give them. They just don’t read.”

Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg

And every time that meme is repeated, the sound you hear next?  — whap! — is a book snapping shut in the hands of a kid who’s concerned, as all young males are, about what’s seen as okay for guys and what’s not.

The boy code is no laughing matter, as specialists including Michael Kimmel (Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men) and William Pollack (Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From The Myths of Boyhood) have told us. It generally takes a lot of maturity for us guys to get past policing each other and being policed — the fear of “being different” runs deep in most of our masculinities.

So while there are many reasons to cheer Mark Zuckerberg’s new reading program at Facebook, my favorite is the gender factor. Seeing a young, stupendously wealthy celebrity tech entrepreneur get down with a book — and discuss it, no less, on the big platform?

Chris McCrudden
Chris McCrudden

I’d like to shake Zuckerberg’s hand.

Chris McCrudden of London’s Midas PR, in Three Reasons To Be Cheerful About The Facebook Bookclub at Medium, was among the first to note the importance of the new initiative.

Here’s how he put it, in the widest terms:

Mark Zuckerberg promoting books (any books) as a content form is an unambiguously good thing. The people who have taken to the media (social or otherwise) to question his motives, scoff at his taste in books or dismiss the relevance of Facebook are missing the point. One of the most powerful people in technology, in charge of the biggest social platform the world has ever seen has just told people that reading books is an activity worthy of their time. This is a big deal.

Alison Flood
Alison Flood

Full agreement, full stop.

I appreciate it when Alison Flood at the Guardian writes: “The Facebook founder has since told members that he had been challenged to ‘beat the popularity of Oprah’s book club,’ and that he had ‘accepted that challenge.'” Sounds good to me.

McCrudden goes further, and I like how he parses Zuckerberg’s advocacy as wielding:

  1. An audience of millions of people who are under the age of 30 and comfortable with social media and technology — usually called millennials
  2. A strong following among young men
  3. A high degree of influence in the technology, business and finance communities

Zuckerberg has all three. So it means that the books he reads and recommends via his Book Club will reach audiences that the publishing industry doesn’t market to effectively because they don’t understand them. It may even serve to fill a much-needed gap in publishers’ knowledge about what younger demographics want from books.

I’d simply have moved the second point to the top spot. I think the gender factor here is even greater than the generational leadership: You don’t have to be under 30 to keep an eye on Zuckerberg with a combination of respect and envious bafflement at how he does it.

#GuysDoRead: And They Make Books Go Out Of Stock

Peter McCarthy
Peter McCarthy

At the just-closed Digital Book World Conference + Expo in New York City, our good colleague Peter McCarthy of Logical Marketing Agency said in a marketing skill sets session that if Zuckerberg’s folks call, a publisher may need to be nimble — as Moisés Naím and his publisher, Basic Books, found out when The End of Power was selected as the first book of the series.

On Twitter, McCarthy — who may be a few months past 30 — joked with me: “Get out the hoodies” in case that call from Zuck comes in. “I’m wearing mine now. FWIW, I’ve worn them longer, if less prominently, than Zuck. #sundaymorningathome”

And we’re looking at you, Penguin Books, hustling into the hoodies this time.

Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker

Zuckerberg has chosen Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined from Penguin, an excellent selection, as was Naim’s book. At Amazon, the paperback edition first listed as being delayed to February 23 and  now isn’t expected until March 12. Another wide-eyed press run clearly is under way while, of course, the Kindle edition is ready for you right now, thanks to another guy who reads, the one in Seattle.

I’m sure it’s a happy scramble for all involved.

Pinker’s book breaks through the gossipy doom-rubbish that too many people revel in (“the world is going to the dogs”) and makes its case well. As he writes in his preface:

Believe it or not— and I know that most people do not— violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.

This is something any international journalist I know, in fact, can tell you. Hot spots instead of vast inflamed regions: not what people have had to suffer in the past.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

I’m delighted that Pinker will join us, as will his wife Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (of Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away), in our Town Hall session in Boston on May 1 at Grub Street’s writers’ conference, the Muse and the Marketplace.

If you can join us in one or both sessions, don’t wait — seating is limited and will go fast.

On the announcement of the second Zuckerberg read, Pinker’s book, I’ve heard observers yawn off the Facebook effort: “Well, anything Zuckerberg does is going to get major press.”

Yeah. That’s the point. He might have announced that he’d be wearing a yellow T-shirt with a clever palm-frond pattern on the back every two weeks. Or do a little kayaking daily. But instead of going for the Beefy Ts or the Field & Stream kayaks, Zuckerberg, of course, announced the start of a bi-weekly book-reading plan, creating a community called A Year of Books. You can join up and read along. I hope you will.

As McCrudden observes, just getting books and tech together is worthwhile in an age when “the assumption [is that] someone who likes technology is diametrically opposed to books,” and vice versa. He goes on:

The person who reads crime fiction on their phone on the tube isn’t less of a reader than the person reading a first edition of Ulysses in an armchair in their library. What Mark Zuckerberg has done by sharing his enthusiasm for reading is to send an important signal that the false dichotomy between technology and books is false.

Laura Miller
Laura Miller

There’s good commentary this week, as well, from our colleague Laura Miller at Salon. In I love Mark Zuckerberg’s book club: Unpacking his quest for literary meaning, she looks at his online notes about the project and writes:

The guy is not a writer and doesn’t pretend to be, and personally I find his quest for meaning kind of touching. For what it’s worth, it has humanized the social-media mogul in my eyes. That’s some kind of achievement, given that, like a lot of people, I find his public persona off-putting, from his libertarian and techno-utopian outlook to his wide-eyed, blank-faced resemblance to a refugee from an “Archie” comic book.

And for my money, Zuckerberg has given the lie to an even more pernicious falsehood — that crap about men not reading.

Publishing’s Challenge: Not Letting The Guys Get Away

If girls and women were lagging behind boys and men in reading, would there be more outcry and concern? I say there would be. Lots more.

What we do know is that publishing is that rare thing today, an industry handsomely dominated by women. And anybody in his right mind wants to celebrate that.

Women may not be in as many C-level spots as we’d like yet, but on the whole, the bookish workforce is understood to be richly in the debt of a predominantly female workforce.

Could this affect how the industry responds or doesn’t respond to a crisis in boys’ reading? By the time you’ve asked that question in a live setting, everyone has run out of the room. Nobody likes the gender problem.

After centuries of the stupid oppression of women by men, nobody wants to say that if we truly wanted to achieve publishing diversity, we’d have to not only deal with racial, ethnic, and socio-economic issues but also with the gender profile of the industry’s corporate hubs. This is one of the few places in business today in which male-female diversity isn’t on the list, because the balance is tipped in the “other” direction.

Jonathan Emmett
Jonathan Emmett

UK-based children’s picture book author Jonathan Emmett — himself a father — has been a champion of more and better picture books for young boys, many of whose parents complain that they find little to buy for their sons. The picture-book market, they say, is overweighted toward books for girls.

A factor here, Emmett has pointed out — respectfully, even apologetically — is that so many publishers’ children’s books departments are overwhelmingly staffed by women.

But here, I want to be careful not to mischaracterize his point.

I would say that if children’s departments were overwhelmingly staffed by men, I might not expect girls’ books to be as plentiful and well-targeted as needed.

Emmett — who stresses that his argument is centered on picture books, not on the wider range of children’s literature — has a more nuanced perspective, and it’s a good one:

I wouldn’t say the problem lies particularly with the lack of gender balance among publishers. There’s a whole chain of gatekeepers that a picture book has to pass along before it gets into a child’s hands. This chain starts with publishers but includes, bookstore and wholesale buyers, children’s booksellers, librarians and infants’ teachers.

I’ve argued elsewhere that possibly the biggest problem for picture books is a lack of gender balance among consumers; I estimate that 90 to 95 percent of picture books are bought by adult women. It only takes one gatekeeper in the chain to reject a book as unappealing and, since men are scarce in all these gatekeeper groups, books with boy-typical appeal are far more likely to be rejected somewhere along the chain.

In response to my inquiry, Emmett tells me:

There’s no question that, when you look at society as a whole, women are still getting a raw deal in comparison to men. Unfortunately, we’ve become so accustomed to equating “sex-equality” with promoting women’s interests that many people are unable to recognize that this [publishing, especially children’s] is one of the few instances where more “sex-equality” means giving men a fairer deal.

Many of the debates concerning educational sex equality take a very partisan, pro-female perspective. The need to address areas of female underachievement is often emphasized, while the need to address areas of male underachievement is played down.

Emmett says, “The current orthodox view in the UK is that the reading gender gap is best tackled by providing boys with more male adult reader role models especially in the home. So recent initiatives such as Booktrust’s Get Dads Reading Campaign and the Fatherhood Institute’s Father’s Story Week Campaign both encourage fathers to read to their children.”

The-Better-Angels-of-Our-NatureYou hear this in the States, too — appeals to have fathers read where their sons and daughters see them doing it.

But if not Dad, who better than Zuck? He is one big brother, and if he can find a reason to plow through 832 Pinker pages, then that stuff is worth checking out. In fact, at a certain point in my 20s, I’d have been a lot faster to emulate Zuckerberg than my father. Wouldn’t you?

Emmett takes issue with some recent coverage of the reading gap for young males, too. He notes efforts to dismiss it as being less a problem than it’s thought to be, and points to the 2012 OECD Gender Equality in Education Report’s finding that that boys’ reading skills “lag behind girls’ at the end of compulsory education to the equivalent of a year’s schooling, on average.”

Get that? — boys reading a year behind girls.

Emmett tells me, “That seems like a big enough problem to me.”

It does to me, too.

Losing Male Readers When They’re Young

A fine round of recently released research from the major educational publisher Scholastic is titled the Kids & Family Reading Report, and is the fifth biannual staging of the study. I’d like to thank Sara Sinek, who works in Scholastic’s Consumer Marketing, Reading Club and eCommerce, for permission to share some of the study’s insights.

Scholastic, Kids & Family Reading Report, 5th edition
Scholastic, Kids & Family Reading Report, 5th edition

The Reading Report surveys US children aged 6 through 17 and their parents “exploring attitudes and behaviors around reading books for fun.”

No, the widest span of this group isn’t the age group to read Pinker and Naím — but one day they will be.

And the real concern about what’s happening in terms of boys and reading is that our electronic entertainment alternatives to are so seductive that if we don’t bring boys into the reading fold in these formative years, not even a Zuckerberg may be able to lure them back.

Scholastic’s Kids & Family Reading Report was managed by YouGov and fielded mostly in the first part of September. There’s a total sample of 2,558 parents an children, including 506 parents of children aged 6 to 17, plus one child of that age range from the same household.

Among some of the results that point to gender differences in reading:

Girls are much more likely to enjoy independent reading at school; 61% of girls cited positive views compared to 44% of boys.

Scholastic, Kids & Family Reading Report, 5th edition
Scholastic, Kids & Family Reading Report, 5th edition

Perhaps in support of the kind of thing Emmett is seeing the UK — where he and other parents find more books for their daughters than their sons — both children and parents surveyed by Scholastic report that it’s important to be sure young readers are offered material they want to read.

From the report:

Nearly three-quarters of both boys and girls (73%) say they would read more if they could find more books they like.

And:

Three in 10 parents (31%)—especially parents of boys—agree that their child has trouble finding books he or she likes.

With its smart emphasis on “reading books for fun” — a wise criterion, considering that what we’re really looking for is a culture that enjoys the stimulation and imagination of reading — the Scholastic study quickly shows more areas in which boys are behind girls.

Scholastic, Kids & Family Reading Report, 5th edition
Scholastic, Kids & Family Reading Report, 5th edition

For example, we read:

Half of children ages 6–17 (51%) are currently reading a book for fun and another one in five (20%) just finished one.

But when we look at the diagram, we see that the averaged results cover serious deficits among the boys.

Of kids surveyed aged 6 through 17, 57 percent of the girls say they’re currently reading a book for fun — only 45 percent of the boys say the same. Among the girls, only 23 percent say they haven’t read a book for fun in a while. Among the boys, 34 percent.

And when the Scholastic study compares the interest in reading between the younger children and the older ones, the returns show that guys are losing the urge to read faster than girls:

While more than four in 10 children (44%) like reading more now that they are older, nearly three in 10 (29%)—especially boys—liked reading more when they were younger.

Scholastic, Kids & Family Reading Report, 5th edition
Scholastic, Kids & Family Reading Report, 5th edition

And what we make of Zuckerberg’s Year of Books may tell us as much about the industry! the industry! of publishing as it does about the Facebook chief’s bookish personality.

At TheStreet.com, Jennifer Van Grove, in Mark Zuckerberg Book Club Exposes Facebook CEO’s Views on Power and Violence, writes of a kind of coming of age for Mark Zuckerberg, not only in choosing reading as his special focus for a year but also in which books are chosen.

Jennifer Van Grove
Jennifer Van Grove

Van Grove:

Zuckerberg, in the spirit of Facebook appears to be embracing this philosophy of expressing what he wants, whether it’s offensive or not. Eleven years after Facebook’s creation, its chief seems to have found his voice.

And if anything, publishing itself needs to stop up to the mark with Mark, take advantage of this highly unusual moment, build some campaigns around the effort and help ease some of these gaps between male and female reading patterns.

I’m plainly perplexed that #GuysDoRead isn’t a message aggressively, relentlessly, and proudly promulgated by the publishing industry.

Don’t misconstrue anything you’re reading here: every reader is precious, of either gender. No one is saying that we want fewer women to read. I am saying that we want and need just as many men to read.

No one has to lose anything. Everyone stands to gain. It’s not “us vs. them.” Instead, this is our “us” needing to do a lot more of what their “them” are doing: reading.

As Jonathan Emmett is always quick to note, men haven’t taken responsibility as much as they should in getting other men and boys into reading. He’s right. What’s more, he likes to remind us that there are both women and men in the business who are concerned about the industry’s offerings for both genders — and for all demographics, for that matter. He’s right again.

But I’ll offer you one more thought that I think is worth putting onto the table: As many times as I’ve heard that defeatist line, “men don’t read,” I’ve never heard a guy say it.

We have many concerns about how books are covered in the media, and about which journalists do that coverage — as represented by the VIDA Count statistics. These issues are valid and urgent and thoroughly worth our attention. We join freely, readily, and seriously with women on these problems.

But in addition, I’d like to feel that both women and men were actively worried about the chasm in reading between the two genders.

And I’m plainly perplexed that #GuysDoRead isn’t a message aggressively, relentlessly, and proudly promulgated by the publishing industry.

Because is there anything attractive about the idea of living in a world in which “men don’t read”? TC mark

Be sure to check us out on Vine! Follow us here.

Read This