I am privileged to belong to what is rare now and what may one day soon be extinct, and that is a book club for men. Why such clubs may become extinct is no mystery. For the past few decades, educators have done all in their power to discourage boys from reading—from being boys, for that matter—and more on this theme later.
Our club has been around for some time. Although many of the charter members still belong, none of us can recall through a hazy decade or so of well-watered nights when the club actually started.
So popular is the club, however, that we have had to freeze membership. If too many boys show up, order quickly breaks down. Given the generous amount of alcohol imbibed, order inevitably breaks down in any case, but usually at a more leisurely pace.
A few years back, a new member, then a bachelor, suggested we open the club to women.
He even offered a candidate for consideration. Although the idea—and the candidate—seemed attractive, the group quickly came to its collective senses.
We explained that for the past however many years the evening’s host has had to throw his wife out of the house.
Changing the policy would be complicated. How complicated? A comparison was offered: On a September day in Sweden 40 years ago, at 4:50 a.m., the traffic nationwide was directed from the left side of the road over to the right side of the road. For 10 minutes, nothing was allowed to move. At 5 a.m., traffic resumed on a side most locals had never driven on before. That, it was suggested, was an easy switch compared to admitting women.
The motion was tabled.
Then too, there was the matter of book selection. Most female clubs tend to read novels. In our club, if someone suggests a novel, someone else will likely question his sexual orientation or, in the case of our French member, his national heritage, or maybe both.
If such a remark seems off-putting, you are likely not a good candidate for the club. For three welcome hours, once a month, boys get to be boys. We turn off our PC filters, silence our inner scold, and let it fly. Sex, race, religion, handicap status, and yes, ladies, even weight—are all fair game. Since the club’s inception, no one has ever been accused of making an “insensitive remark.” Or a sensitive one, for that matter.
If, however, someone is about to say something that could get him fired, he might begin with the caveat, “Although I am personally offended by the joke I am about tell, I thought I would share it to show you the sad state of affairs in contemporary America. A Muslim, a communist, and an illegal immigrant walk into a bar . . . .”
As to the books themselves, the one common thread is that in each story told, lots of people die horrible, bloody deaths before truth, justice, and the American (or Greek or Roman or British) way prevail. In short, the books, like the members, skew rightward.
When a young reporter from the Financial Times of London sat in on one of our sessions in October 2012, he seemed impressed that a group of men anywhere in America, let alone in Kansas, would actually discuss “the future of Afghanistan” over barbecue.
Although a shade patronizing, the reporter got the mood right. “Ribald loquacity and wrenching honesty,” he wrote, “is, along with ribs and sloppy chili, the order of the day.” Our proximity to Fort Leavenworth, and the fact that one of our members works there through the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center, made us seem a little less ridiculous that we might otherwise have to a smug young British prog.
Alas, future generations of men may never know this semi-enlightened kind of camaraderie. At school today, boys are subject to an ideology that insists they are hardwired no differently than girls. Once this mind-set is imposed, it leads many young males to disengage not only from school and academic achievement, but also from the enduring rituals that shape boys into men.
To govern boys in a school system designed primarily for girls, educators have been turning to the medical establishment. Rare just a generation ago, today ADHD is a more common diagnosis in schools than head lice. Boys are diagnosed with it at least three times as often as girls, and they are 30 times more likely to be using drugs to deal with it than they were a generation ago.
When I was in grade school—maximum class size 66—no one had ADD or ADHD. The nuns beat it out of us. Like the other boys in my class, I acquired discipline enough to read, and the teachers encouraged us to do just that.
I still remember the books on my reading list for the summer before my freshman year—Mutiny on the Bounty, Men at Sea, Kon-Tiki, Annapurna, Call of the Wild, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer. I read them all. Hell, if today’s educators rewrote Twain, Huck and Tom would be on Ritalin and Jim would be trans-gendered.
I scarcely exaggerate. I came across a recommended reading list from an unexceptional public high school library. Nine of the books were written by women, and eight had female protagonists.
Of the three books by men, one had the inevitable gay theme; one dealt with the “witches and queens of fairyland” and was “explicitly created for those who reject the supernatural;” and the third was about a “diabolically delightful” teen girl whose bitter ex-priest of a father would not let her date. In my books, heroes taught themselves how to climb mountains and cross oceans. In these books, heroes learn how to let themselves cry.
Denied male role models and masculine literature, boys increasingly turn to video games and pornography or just drop out of school altogether. Today, boys are 15 times more likely than their female counterparts to be the victim of a violent crime, four times more likely to commit suicide, four times more likely to be addicted to drugs and alcohol, and they greatly outnumber girls in special education programs.
It is long past time for educators to start thinking about their own book clubs for boys. I will be happy to draw up a reading list.