Apparently, I read like a girl

Thursday is for all things bookish here at Barrelhouse, whether that means other lit mags, novels, story collections, comic books, whatever. So here's a little something that's been stuck in my craw lately.

Earlier this year, after finishing Audrey Niffenegger's book The Time Traveler's Wife, I remarked to a female friend about how much I'd enjoyed it. "Really?" she said. "Hmm." She was quiet for a minute, like she was trying to decide whether to say whatever was on her mind or just let it drop. Finally, she said "It's just kind of funny. I don't know any other men who liked that book."

Hmm, indeed.

"No, no," she quickly said. "That's not a bad thing. I mean, you're just more sensitive than I would have guessed."

Why is it that being called sensitive always feels like getting kneed in the balls? Maybe it's not such a bad thing, really. Is the alternative better or worse? Would I rather be mistaken for an insensitive meathead, the sort of man who calls women chicks and throws things at the TV during sporting events; or some sort of Nancy boy, the kind of man who listens to Death Cab for Cutie and likes to cook and isn't afraid to talk about his feelings? Frankly, neither was exactly true, but neither was exactly not true, either.

This rather emasculating conversation came back to me this week because I'm about three-quarters of the way through Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep, which I've been enjoying quite a bit (although I must admit, I'm enjoying it in a should-this-feel-like-a-guilty-pleasure? way). And if The Time Traveler's Wife is a girl book, then Prep is a capital-G Girl Book.

And this has all got me thinking about the books I used to read as a kid, when I was first falling in love with books as an escape from the real world and also, somehow, an immersion in it. I read my share of Hardy Boys mysteries, and those mindless sports/adventure books aimed at pre-teen boys (all of which have a sort of eerie fifties mentality of gender relations, with their brawny manly men and jiggly blonde cheerleaders). But I also read every book in the Judy Blume catalog, and those are the ones I remember most clearly. So maybe I've been reading like a girl since the very beginning.

In the end, I have no real idea what it means to read like a boy or a girl (or a man or a woman) or what types of books might be considered mannish or girlish. There are any number of "chick-lit" books and Harlequin romances clearly aimed at women, just as all sorts of Tom Clancy/Richard Patterson-type books are clearly aimed at men. But I don't want to read the books in either of those categories any more than I want to be poked repeatedly in the eye with a sharp stick.

What about more "literary" books? Whether I enjoy reading something or not seems to have very little to do with the gender of its main character, or of its author. Sure, there are things about the life of Prep's protagonist (a teenaged girl from the Midwest transplanted to an East Coast boarding school) that I can't relate directly to my own experience. But there are also plenty of things that are immediately familiar – the insecurities of adolescence, the unnerving cliquishness of high school, the ways people talk or don't talk about money. And who says reading books is about finding characters that look or act or think exactly like you?

Or maybe I'm just protesting too much. If anyone needs me, I'll be curled up on the couch with a pint of Ben and Jerry's, a Sarah McLachlan CD and the latest Sweet Valley High book.

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