Boys, Books and Bildungsroman

A Brief Caution

By Dan Friedman

Published May 14, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

I was shocked when I interviewed novelist and Columbia creative writing professor Gary Shteyngart last year and he remarked on how many men write but how few men read novels — statistically speaking. As someone for whom novel-reading is a constitutive pursuit, this gendering of reading sounded absurd. All through high school, college and grad school, my friends, peers and colleagues had read novels whatever their gender or genders.

Stories of Growing Up These three new books are about boys who, from the context of their past, slowly turn to face their future as men.
Stories of Growing Up These three new books are about boys who, from the context of their past, slowly turn to face their future as men.

It turned out that getting ready for the birth of my elder daughter I’d missed the furor surrounding Ian McEwan article to which Shteyngart’s comment referred. In it McEwan had concluded “when women stop reading, the novel will be dead.” His conclusion was based on a mishmash of statistics and anecdotes (most notably his inability to give away excellent free books to men in central London). But the reductive truth of it seems based on the notion that stories are for girls and facts are for boys.

I find terribly sad the idea that people would not want to read roughly in accordance to their ability. Reading is how we learn to imagine others — not the outcomes of the plot, but how characters, events and language flow around each other: how other people exist. Novels expose you to new people, worlds and aspects of worlds. Reading a good novel though is not about its internal facts, but their apprehension and representation by the author: If you read “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” for Catholic theology or Irish history, you are missing the point. Reading delights and instructs (pace Horace) us as to how other people see and have insight into the world.

For example, this month has seen the appearance of three male coming-of age novels: “Whatever Makes You Happy” by my friend Will Sutcliffe, out in paperback from Bloomsbury USA; “Selfless” (Absey & Co.) by David Michael Slater, and “A Seat at the Table: A Novel of Forbidden Choices” by Joshua Halberstam (Sourcebooks Landmark). In the interests of full disclosure I don’t know Halberstam or Slater in the slightest.

These are all authors who might expect some publisher or reader support. Sutcliffe is a best-selling author in Britain whose books — this is his fifth novel — keep getting optioned by Hollywood; Slater has a reputable oeuvre of young adult and children’s fiction and would hope to bring that readership to the next stage; Halberstam has written accessibly on philosophy, culture and religion, and he has a constituency among the students he has taught at various universities.

Furthermore, as well as track records, these authors have good elevator pitches. Halberstam is writing a heavily fictionalized memoir about Elisha, a descendant of prominent Hasidic dynasties (on both sides) growing up in postwar New York. Elisha embraces the Hasidic storytelling tradition but is otherwise more curious about the secular and modern world around him than his heritage and tradition can comfortably deal with. Sutcliffe takes thirty-somethings who were childhood friends and asks the question, ‘what would happen if their mothers made a pact to go and spend a week being maternal to their emotionally distant, variably successful, and relatively immature sons?’

Slater is the longest-winded and perhaps most ambitious, recording the high school and post college years of Jonathan Schwartz who finds out that his father — a famous writer — did not write his own books. Along this model of core inconsistency, Jonathan’s views of his own identity and those of his friends and family slip around dangerously.

These books have hooks, flow, arcs and style. They may not be “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” but most books are not, and not being Joyce has its advantages too — like being more obviously relevant to people not brought up Irish, Catholic or with preternatural sensitivity. Unlike Harry Potter — often misguidedly adduced as the quintessential bildungsroman of our time —who fights his final battle without ever reaching adulthood and then whose story jumps to having kids of his own, these three novels deal with the essential part of growing up (however arrested that development may be): leaving home and accommodating the world of destination with the home of origin.

These three novels are sharp, clear, funny, evocative of the pains of growing up but, on a rough average, ranked by Amazon just below the top half-million books. Not just factual accounts of how to grow up, they are stories about the process of telling stories — stories of growing up. They are stories of boys who, from the context of their past, slowly turn to face their future as men, but — perhaps with the exception of the mothers who buy Sutcliffe’s book — few people seem to care. So what’s the cost of this neglect? In a word: sympathy.

Film, television and video games can be fun and can teach lessons but they rarely, if ever, engage the linguistic faculty that is our prime mode of interacting with others or provide a nuanced insight into the radical otherness that is another person’s way of being in the world. Books make us feel not for another person but as another person — from the inside, not from the outside. The essential pathos of reading is not pity, it’s sympathy. For those who mature without reading or read without maturing — and for those of us who live with them — the world is a narrower, less sympathetic place.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.