A Post On Guys Who Like to Read But Can’t Find Anything Good

W e’d eat navy beans and rice with ketchup once a week when I was a kid, but somehow there was always money in the budget for my sister and I to take a trip to the bookstore. My parents wanted me to read. And it caught on, sort of. After we moved to Texas in my seventh grade year, we discovered the joy of secondhand book buying. In the Half Price Books store downtown was a treasure of awesome titles.

The only problem was that I didn’t know how to find most of them.

For years, my Dad would take my sister and I to a bookstore, promptly disappear for an hour, then emerge with a war history or procedural novel. I’d wander through the children’s section (too young) or the adult fiction section (too boring), looking for a good story to read. I got very familiar with all of the books on pro football. Sometimes I even snuck into the photography section (wink, wink). Young adult fiction didn’t really exist yet, except for Judy Blume, and no self respecting boy would be caught dead with one of those. But I had no idea how to find a book I liked.

Eventually I started reading Stephen King novels. I wasn’t particularly a fan of horror, but I was thrilled at the allure of swear words, lots of violence, and occasional sex. I couldn’t believe my parents let me get away with it. Horror quickly became the genre with which I had the most familiarity, so for a junior English class short story assignment I wrote a short story called “Hourglass,” about a guy who dreams that he’s in a world of sand. My heavy symbolism didn’t make much sense, then or now, but my teacher apparently thought I could craft a sentence well. She helped me submit it to a national student literary magazine called Merlyn’s Pen. A few weeks later I was shocked to discover they’d accepted it. My more literary minded classmates were appalled that I had become the only published author in school. The irony was I thought they wrote better than me, and had more worthy subjects.

This victory against stodgy prose propelled me toward a career in writing. I wanted to try reading other styles of books, but it seemed the only two kinds I could find were schlock or what seemed to be a dense thicket of high literate prolixity.  I gave up Stephen King as too juvenile, but struggled to find a replacement go-to author.

I needed help navigating the aisles.

I’m a more seasoned reader now, and can easily checkout with six or eight books. But to this day I struggle to find a favorite writer: one who employs a healthy vocabulary yet isn’t purple, one who enjoys plot but not to the detriment of character, and one who eschews tired genres to write about a topic that actually has relevance.

A lot of contemporary writers such as Jennifer Egan and Richard Ford suffer from postmodern vacuity. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was a powerful elegy on marriage but I couldn’t wade completely through his earlier book, The Corrections. I enjoy Pat Conroy but he sometimes needs a more rigorous editor. Individual titles from genre writers, such as Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, have caught my attention (though not the sequel). Cormac McCarthy is good, though dark. Often I end up with a reflection on faith, biography, or memoir in my hand, such as the biography on Steve Jobs, something from Don Miller, Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken or, currently, Lauren Winner’s Still. I have an equally hard time with industry-specific titles, for example communication or church leadership, as they’re often poorly written rehash of concepts that never seem to create traction.

I don’t want my kids to suffer from the same struggle, a reader who has a hard time finding a great author. Today I mimicked my father’s practice and took my kids to a nearby used bookstore (praise Jesus for Bookmiser), except I scanned the shelves with them, suggesting titles. At checkout, we’d selected $50 worth of new books. My son Christian picked up Harry Potter for the first time (I’ve been waiting on the books and films so I can experience them together with my kids). I am excited about a now more clearly defined young adult target market, though perhaps with less of the ghoulish undead, and have hopes he won’t struggle like a have.

Do other guys have the same issues? I venture to say yes. While in publishing I learned that 85% of book buyers are women. What’s the chicken (or the egg) here? Maybe most buyers are women because publisher notions of the male book reader are so limited. What do you do if you’re a male reader perpetually searching for something between the poles of Sparks and Spillane?

Any recommendations for a favorite author? Any thoughts on other adult male readers? Am I in the minority, or are men actually a massive, untapped market?

11 Comments on “A Post On Guys Who Like to Read But Can’t Find Anything Good”

  1. Thanks for the post. I can see myself in there some. I have always enjoyed Steven King and Tom Clancy. So I would expect to like writers who are like them. Nope. Just doesn’t work that way either.

    I like Tom Clancy so I should like Stephen Coonts. Nope. Hated the book I read of his. Then there is always the, well this guy is popular. Nope. Didn’t care for John Grisham, at least the one book I read. After reading King and Clancy, his just seemed to easy of a read.

    I love the fact that my boys love to read. Two of them just blasted through the Harry Potter books and are not making their way through the Percy Jackson & the Olympians books.

    I guess the only way to solve the matter is to just keep reading and find the writers we like. 🙂

  2. I would suggest DekKer and Steven James. Both write great thrillers. And Joel Rosenberg quotes some incredibly well research stuff the keeps the pages turning.

  3. I often recommend a book to Todd I think he might like after I’ve read it–something a little different from his usual thriller or suspense fare. He has enjoyed Chris Cleve (Gold, Incendiary), David Abrams (Fobbit), and is currently reading A Land More Kind than Home by Wiley Cash–all books I enjoyed too. I haven’t read, but have heard good things about The Crown and The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau. If you like Pat Conroy well enough, you might enjoy Richard Russo.

  4. Most of the men I know who are avid readers prefer nonfiction over fiction. That includes myself; although I love reading fiction, I find it’s rarely a priority for me and there are few novelists I’d consistently read if I could (one exception would be Ian Samson, http://bit.ly/IanSamson, who writes a delightful mystery series about a quirky Irish mobile librarian). Nonfiction books tend to have a lower mass appeal.

    On the other hand, most of the women I know who are avid readers are social readers. That is, they form and join book clubs, post on facebook or Pinterest or Goodreads about books they are reading, and give books regularly as gifts. Surely the social effect has to be one of the primary reasons women dominate the book world, much in the same way that men dominate the (often social) world of gaming.

    By the way, one marvelous example of a man in my church who is a prolific reader of fairly difficult books on religion (though he’s a retired physics professor) and a few other topics is a guy named Fred Wohn who blogs at http://www.whatfredhasread.com. I can always count on a great conversation with him when it comes to books!

    1. Thanks for the note Tim. I’ll check out Samson. I think you’re right on that guys prefer nonfiction. Which is odd because guys love story just as much as women.

      1. I’m somewhat like that but I do like a good fiction book every now and then just to give my mind a chance to just release and let my imagination free. I just finished the first book in The Hunger Games trilogy and will be starting the 2nd here shortly.

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