Boys With Books: An alternative reading list
Words & Photography by Sophie Davidson for Birdsong
Recently I joined OkCupid as a ‘woman seeking man’ and deleted it with in 3 days. Unlike the dating apps I am used to I was able to see more information about potential dates and that was, for me, more depressing than the shallow act of endlessly swiping left and right.
The reason being were the books that these men had chosen as their favourites. They were so repetitive – David Foster Wallace, Marx, Jonathan Franzen, Kazuo Ishiguro, James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Zizek, Sartre, Kurt Vonnegut, Murakami, Bukowski, Jack bloody Kerouac, ETC.
I’m sorry Jack Kerouac fans, I love ‘The Dharma Bums’. I mean, I like these authors, some of them are my favourites too…but you see the pattern here. The lack of female authors was astounding. The lack of diversity amazed me. Some of the exceptions to the rule (I would say it was true for about 95% although I didn’t count and a lot of the men just didn’t seem to read anything) were two men I already know (well done boys) and one man who’d managed to spell Han Kang wrong. Han Kano? G and O aren’t even near each other on a key board.
Obviously I have no idea what else these men have read, maybe 90% of the other books they read are by women, but I doubt it. It just seems that the books that are classed as ~respected literature worth showing off about having read on a dating site~ are mainly by white male authors. For all I know they haven’t even read them, they’ve just read the bio for ‘Infinite Jest’ and had a quick scroll through David Foster Wallace’s Wikipedia page (I’m sorry to say I’m beginning to think that’s a thing people actually do.)
Books, along with film (consistently lacking in diversity) and art, (in which women were pretty much written out of history,) are perhaps the best way to explore different experiences to our own. If a high percentage of the population isn’t attempting to experience how the rest live then it seems like an increasingly difficult task to create equality.
So here is an alternative list of books I have read and would recommend. Feel free to suggest them as alternatives when a man says ‘I just really like *insert male author’s name here*’.
David Foster Wallace : So the man likes a tome. Why not try Doris Lessing’s ‘The Golden Notebook,’ some Ayn Rand or The Neopolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante? 1700 pages overall, perfect.
Jonathan Franzen : Meg Wolitzer ‘The Interestings.’ Or maybe one of the women that Jonathan Franzen himself likes, he really got behind Nell Zink when she published her first 2 novels and his favourite book of last year according to a Guardian article was ‘The Portable Veblen,’ by Elizabeth McKenzie.
Sartre : Simone De Beauvoir, obviously. Other obvious couple ties include Henry Miller and Anais Nin (although Panty by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay may work here) and Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, along with which you could offer a stance on the censorship of female authors.
J D Salinger : If the man’s favourite book is ‘Catcher in the Rye,’ then he probably needs to grow up. If it’s the short stories he likes you could recommend Lorrie Moore or ‘Whatever Happened to Interracial Love,’ by Kathleen Collins which came out this month. You could then both watch ‘Losing Ground’ by Collins and kill two cultural birds with one excellent stone (/woman.)
George Orwell : ‘Things I Don’t Want to Know,’ by Deborah Levy is a response to George Orwell’s ‘Why I Write,’ and looks at Levy growing up during the apartheid. It’s also my favourite book that I read last year so I’m telling everyone to read it anyway.
Karl Ove Knausgard : try some Maya Angelou, the woman wrote 7 autobiographical works and you can talk about the struggles of white men afterwards.
I don’t want to have to always define women by men’s work so here’s some other recommendations that I won’t give male comparisons for: ‘The Argonauts’ by Maggie Nelson, ‘Negroland’ by Margo Jefferson, ‘The Heart is a Lonely Hunter’ by Carson McCullers, ‘The God of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy, ‘The Man Who Loved Children’ by Christina Stead, ’Pond’ by Claire Louise Bennett, ‘The Colour Purple,’ by Alice Walker, ‘Trans’ by Juliet Jacques, anything by Sarah Moss, Joan Didion, Zadie Smith, Nora Ephron, Sheila Heti, MFK Fisher, Emily Berry, Rachel Cusk, Elizabeth Strout, Olivia Laing, Yoko Ogawa, Banana Yoshimoto, Eileen Myles, Han Kang, Patti Smith, Miranda July, Rebecca Solnit, Jan Morris, Jeanette Winterson, Donna Tartt, Nicole Krauss, Susan Sontag, Eimear McBride, Otessa Moshfegh, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Ali Smith.
I could go on, these are just a few suggestions, but my main aim is to put more books by women into the hands of men and hope for the best.