Spotted in England: Men Reading ... and Talking about It

Article excerpt

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 them off."

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 sales. …

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