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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Pink covers, blue covers

Last week, I ran across this interesting piece about gender bias in reading – or, more precisely, in the choice of whose books we read. The writer, Peter O’Dowd, crunched the numbers on his ten-year list of books read and found that he’d chosen female authors less than 15 percent of the time – women had written 22 of the 149 books on his list.

O’Dowd’s piece prompted me to crunch my own numbers, though my Goodreads list goes back only two years. It’s not entirely complete, either – a few older, obscure books were missing from Goodreads’ database, and I deliberately left off some of my trashier choices in the romance genre, out of reluctance to expose my bad taste in public.

But the overall picture is clear: like O’Dowd, I heavily favor authors of my own sex, picking female writers 80 percent of the time – 149 out of 187 books. The male authors on my list were also far more likely to have written non-fiction: 12 of my 38 books by men, or 32 percent, are non-fiction, compared to only 11 percent of my books by women (16 out of 149).

Some of this gender imbalance is owed to my recent enthusiasm for romance novels, overwhelmingly written by women (and quick to consume, thereby upping my numbers). But even the mysteries and literary fiction I read tend to be written by women. I favor domestic novels about families and relationships over sweeping epics, political history, or pop psychology – Anne Tyler rather than Malcolm Gladwell.

I suspect that my author list has grown increasingly female over the years: back when I was a precocious young reader of the classics, I devoured at least as much Dickens, Trollope, Fitzgerald, H.G. Wells, and Robert Louis Stevenson as I did Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot. Of course, back then, I often chose books recommended by the English professor in the family – my father. Now that I pick my own books, the most shocking of the many gaps in my reading skew male: Chaucer, Vonnegut, Roth, Bellow. . .

According to O’Dowd, these gendered reading patterns are pretty common: he cites a 2014 Goodreads survey showing that men tend to read male authors and women tend to read female ones. He’s not inclined to judge this pattern as a problem, but he’s planning to try reading more by women.

I know I’ve missed out on some wonderful books by men – friends tell me as much, and some of those friends are even female – and perhaps I too will exert myself to sample a larger selection of books by boys. On the whole, though, I figure my reading choices are between me and God. Who may well disapprove of the trashy romances.


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