They meet in a pub, the first Friday of the month, a slew of
books on the table, a convivial spirit in the air, and a couple of
hours of banter ahead.
Just another of Britain's many thousands of reading groups? Well,
yes. But with a slight twist. The Racketeers, as they are known, are
a rare breed. In the overwhelmingly female preserve of the British
book club, they are all men.
Of some 700 entrants to this year's national reading group
competition, the Racketeers stood alone as the only all-male outfit.
They also stood apart: Judges decided that their laudable breadth of
reading and innovative approach earned them the award.
"We only entered as a bit of a laugh," says founding Racketeer
Chris Chilton. "I've been staggered by the interest that it has
generated simply because we're eight blokes."
The dearth of male entrants has prompted fresh questions about
male reading habits here. Research consistently shows that boys and
men lag behind women when it comes to reading. More than 40 percent
of men say that they don't read books. It appears they are also
loath to discuss books as well.
"As a male reader, and an English teacher as well, it's not
something I can grasp," says Chilton. "Obviously there are lots of
distractions for boys and men, and possibly there's this idea that
the way to engage in a book is through your feelings, which puts
The publishing industry has long struggled to entice the British
male to buy novels - even producing research showing that women find
men who read books more attractive than those who don't. "Men can
increase their chances of securing a first date - just by picking up
a book," the research contends.
Despite these lures, women account for at least 60 percent of
fiction sales in Britain, according to Book Marketing Limited, a
research company, And while men are more enthusiastic about
nonfiction titles and sports books, the under-25 male reads less
than any group, spending an average of two hours a week in the
company of a book, according to Penguin.
Men elsewhere may be even more immune to the book bug. Eurostat
reported last year that as far as reading books in general was
concerned - including biographies and nonfiction titles that men
typically like - British men actually read more than most other
Europeans, particularly countries like Greece and Ireland where
women readers outnumber men by 3 to 2. In the US, only 37 percent of
men reported reading any novels, short stories, plays, or poetry in
a 12-month period.
"The received wisdom in publishing is that young to middle-aged
men are difficult to sell to because you can't get them in to
bookshops," says James Gill, a literary agent with Peters, Fraser
and Dunlop in London. "They're out buying magazines, newspapers,
DVDs, or watching telly."
Books are all the rage
And yet shared reading is bigger than ever in Britain. Tens of
thousands of people are estimated to belong to a book club, be it
through local libraries, friends, or neighborhood groups. A popular
daytime TV show has its own bookclub spot, and the titles it
endorses show astonishing uplift in sales. Penguin has orchestrated
"One Book, One City" events that have moved thousands of additional
copies of books. The BBC's Big Read event last year got the whole
nation reading the classics and popular titles, again boosting book