08. February 2020 · Comments Off on The long slow death of the interior life of the American male · Categories: Olio

I was at a neighborhood party. There was no talk of politics because there were some Trumpinistas present and no one wanted the party to blow up. Instead there was, of course, talk of the neighborhood and city politics. People asked me how long I’d lived in the neighborhood (forever is basically the answer) and what I thought of Palo Alto schools (too much of a pressure cooker, but basically OK). Then a man asked me what books I’d recommend that I’d read recently. He knew I was a writer, but still. A man hasn’t asked me about books at a non-writers party in a decade at least. I probably had an initial look of shock because I don’t have a poker face. Then I composed myself and recommended what I thought were the best of the books I’d read last year.

It may be another ten years before a man at a party asks me about books again. It may never happen again. Men hardly read books today. They dropped reading literary fiction about thirty years ago and a handful still read revenge porn stories with Jack Reacher type characters. Bureau of Labor Statistics bear this out. American males read, on average, fourteen minutes per day for pleasure as of 2018. That’s it, fourteen minutes. Women don’t read much more – seventeen minutes a day – but I note that women at parties do ask me about books. They also dominate the book clubs I’ve done Skype/FaceTime sessions with and fill the seats at bookstore readings. A YouGov survey indicates that sixty-nine percent of men never read for pleasure at all.

Men also only sparsely attend theater and concerts. A couple of months ago a young woman was sitting next to me at the symphony. She was a violin student and we chatted about the music. I asked her boyfriend what he thought and he gave me a blank stare. “I’m here because she’s here,” he said. He looked relieved that I was filling up the intermission time by talking with his girlfriend.

The loss of men participating in American high culture is something that gradually happened over my lifetime. World War II and the GI Bill started men on the path to self-reflection. Soldiers were given cheap paperbacks during the war and access to higher education after. Of course, not every man participated. Highbrow and middlebrow cultures weren’t big in the working class neighborhood of my childhood. But in my home, culture was a presence even though my parents hardly read books. My mom read Tolstoy and other books in Russian when she came to America, but when the McCarthy era hit, she got scared she might be deported for such reading and stopped taking Russian books out of the library. My dad worked like a demon and read the newspaper.

While my parents weren’t book readers, they certainly valued books and encouraged their kids to read. My father would quote from Pushkin and Lermontov and would tell me that reading novels and poetry were essential for understanding life. We’d go to Russian cultural events, like when the Bolshoi came to Chicago, or Polish-Jewish cultural events, like when Arthur Rubinstein came to play in Milwaukee. The idea was that high European culture enriched your mind and soul. In my family, the life of the mind was important. Intellectuals were admired. The assumption on the part of my parents was that their two boys would pursue the life of the mind as a lifetime avocation.

Central to all this was that examination of the interior life was essential. It wasn’t just what intellectuals and wimps did. It was what everyone who wanted to live a full life did. You didn’t just run around and make money. You thought about your actions, their intent and purpose. You put your actions in the context of the behavior of those around you.

Why were my parents self-reflective? I don’t think they were born that way. I’ll take a leap and say that war transformed them. There’s nothing that can throw doubt into your mind about life and its meaning than being shot at or being woken by bombs blasting away. Both of those jolts happened to me only once each and I’ll never forget them. My parents survived gun shots and bombs again and again as well as starvation, frostbite, and typhoid over a six year period. They knew the war scarred them and changed them permanently. When my mother was looking for a husband, she avoided American men because, “They were babies. They couldn’t possibly understand my life and what I lived through.”

Don’t get me wrong. My parents weren’t intellectuals, far from it. They were pragmatists and doers at heart. But the war made them think about matters loftier than how they would make their next mortgage payment. It’s not surprising that my parents expected their children to live full interior lives, although my parents were leery of us becoming intellectuals.

My brother was more intellectually inclined than I was. He dragged me to the library, where he would pick out books for me to read. He took me to see Hamlet when I was twelve. He had me listen to Coltrane. Eventually I shared his interest in literature and music. This wasn’t a common pursuit in our working class neighborhood, but it wasn’t reviled. I was respected and admired for being able to both throw a punch and help anyone with their homework. It didn’t hurt that respect for high and middlebrow art was part of 1960s American culture. Books were celebrated in major magazines. Even late night talk shows occasionally had real authors, classical musicians and opera singers.

Strangely or maybe not so strangely for me, Orthodox Jewish schooling contributed to this pursuit of the life of the mind. We’d read the Bible in Hebrew and discuss it with the help of Rashi’s commentary. Reading the Biblical scholar Rashi was basically my first exposure to footnotes. I can’t imagine that there is a better way to reinforce the idea that footnotes are valuable.

While our pursuit of art and the interior life was unusual in our childhood neighborhood,  my brother and I found out that what we were doing was not at all unusual once we moved to the suburbs. The fathers of my friends frequently had, as a mark of their success and erudition, their own libraries filled with leather-bound books. They had jazz and classical music albums. During their adult parties, I’d eavesdrop and hear them talk about the books they read and music they listened to. In their world, a successful man was a sensitive soul when he wasn’t earning the family’s daily bread. I looked at these men – stockbrokers, store owners, lawyers and doctors – and assumed that not only would their life be my life, but it would be a life that was fulfilling.

Were these fathers sincere with their intellectually minded talk? Not all of them were. Their social lives demanded that they at least fake it. Thorstein Veblen, a late 19th/early 20th century sociologist, would probably say that what they were doing was signaling they were part of the leisure class. The men talked about art and literature because it showed that they had achieved enough success to have the time to pursue reading books and attending concerts and art shows. But for many, this time spent on art and self-reflection was, indeed, important.

My friends didn’t follow in their fathers’ footsteps, though. When they became adults they wanted man caves not libraries. Video games filled shelves instead of books. Talk about art and books was replaced entirely with talk about sports, which were being broadcast 24/7 on cable TV.

Why did this evolution happen? My wife says that it was due to the distracted culture of video games and over-scheduled children’s lives. She believes reading for pleasure is something that develops early. How America has raised children over the last thirty years implicitly assumes that literature and art aren’t important.

I think there’s truth in this assessment, but I also believe something else is going on. Like my parents, the fathers of my friends knew war. Many were soldiers in World War II or soldiers in Korea. Some of their older children were soldiers in Vietnam. War scars everyone emotionally. It forces many to be self-reflective. For thirty years, we routinely made the young men of the middle and upper middle class fight in our wars. Then we abandoned the draft.

War is now something strictly fought by our poor and uneducated. The sons of the American soldiers who went on to college and aspired to having homes with personal libraries weren’t exposed to war. They never experienced anything life threatening. The war books and novels that their fathers held dear because they spoke of a common painful experience meant nothing to them. The sons felt no need to be self-reflective. No traumatic experience fundamentally changed them and exposed their souls.

A few months ago I was in front of a tourist town bookstore that had some books outside on a cart. A father, about fifty years old, and his son, about twenty-four, looked at the cart like it was an artifact from a foreign land. “What are those?” the son asked (he really did ask this question). “Books,” the father said with derision. “Why are they here, outside?” the son asked. “I guess because they want to sell them,” the father said. They both looked perplexed and then walked to a neighboring bakery. I watched them walk by. I felt an urge to say to them what my father sometimes would say to me: “You can learn more about life from ten pages of Tolstoy than you can learn from five years of living.” But I knew my plea would have no effect.

I don’t want this country to bring back the draft and fight more wars in an experiment to see if the self-reflective, book-reading American male will return. Such an effort would be too damaging and, despite my theory, probably wouldn’t succeed at turning men into readers. I don’t want to go back in a time machine and live the rest of my days with the fathers of my friends. Among other things, I don’t think, given their drinking habits, that my liver would last more than five years if I did so. I’m, instead, happy to talk to women who still read and to talk to the handful of young men who are artistic souls (they will always be with us). But I do have a profound nostalgia for the time when my friends’ fathers routinely talked about books and art with emotion.




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