Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Reading is for Women (and Men!)

I stumbled upon an interesting 2007 NPR article about the differences between the reading habits of men and women. An AP poll taken among avid readers showed that the typical woman reads 9 books in a year, compared with only 5 for men, with the exception of the categories of history and biography. What was really interesting about the article was the fact that in the category of fiction the contrast between men and women is even starker. Men make up only 20% of the fiction market.

The article ponders various theories as to the whys for the “fiction gap,” including cognitive psychologists findings that women are more empathetic than men, with a greater emotional range which can make fiction more appealing to them. Another theory held “mirror neurons” responsible for differences. Neuroscientists believe these neurons hold the biological key to empathy. “The research is still in its early stages, but some studies have found that women have more sensitive mirror neurons than men. That might explain why women are drawn to works of fiction, which by definition require the reader to empathize with characters.”

While I'm not attuned enough to the male psyche to hazard a guess as to the whys for the male side of the poll findings, as an avid reader, and woman, I think women have active imaginations, I'm sure some men might even say overactive imaginations, which could explain fiction's appeal. We can easily lose ourselves in a character's life or personality, be rich if we're poor, be brave if we're afraid, or be confident if we're normally meek. Another facet of fiction's appeal is simply escapism -- an escape from the daily rigors of balancing work, home, and family. Not that men don't need that escapism, but I think men find that escape through other means, like maybe sports.

A disturbing tidbit of information in the article was the fact that a poll released by The Associated Press and Ipsos found that the typical American reads only four books in the year, and one in four adults read no books at all. Sadly, whether male or female, Americans are readingly less than in the past. It's really not that surprising given that in general our lives are lived in hyper-speed, with little down time for something as seemingly vacuous or purposeless as reading.

But in fact, as wiser men have said, reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body, and one of the greatest gifts we can give our children and ourselves is the freedom found in a book -- the freedom to dream.