Spotted in England: men reading ... and talking about it

They meet in a pub, the first Friday of the month, a slew of books on the table, a convivial spirit in the air, and a couple of hours of banter ahead.

Just another of Britain's many thousands of reading groups? Well, yes. But with a slight twist. The Racketeers, as they are known, are a rare breed. In the overwhelmingly female preserve of the British book club, they are all men.

Of some 700 entrants to this year's national reading group competition, the Racketeers stood alone as the only all-male outfit. They also stood apart: Judges decided that their laudable breadth of reading and innovative approach earned them the award.

"We only entered as a bit of a laugh," says founding Racketeer Chris Chilton. "I've been staggered by the interest that it has generated simply because we're eight blokes."

The dearth of male entrants has prompted fresh questions about male reading habits here. Research consistently shows that boys and men lag behind women when it comes to reading. More than 40 percent of men say that they don't read books. It appears they are also loath to discuss books as well.

"As a male reader, and an English teacher as well, it's not something I can grasp," says Chilton. "Obviously there are lots of distractions for boys and men, and possibly there's this idea that the way to engage in a book is through your feelings, which puts them off."

The publishing industry has long struggled to entice the British male to buy novels - even producing research showing that women find men who read books more attractive than those who don't. "Men can increase their chances of securing a first date - just by picking up a book," the research contends.

Despite these lures, women account for at least 60 percent of fiction sales in Britain, according to Book Marketing Limited, a research company, And while men are more enthusiastic about nonfiction titles and sports books, the under-25 male reads less than any group, spending an average of two hours a week in the company of a book, according to Penguin.

Men elsewhere may be even more immune to the book bug. Eurostat reported last year that as far as reading books in general was concerned - including biographies and nonfiction titles that men typically like - British men actually read more than most other Europeans, particularly countries like Greece and Ireland where women readers outnumber men by 3 to 2. In the US, only 37 percent of men reported reading any novels, short stories, plays, or poetry in a 12-month period.

"The received wisdom in publishing is that young to middle-aged men are difficult to sell to because you can't get them in to bookshops," says James Gill, a literary agent with Peters, Fraser and Dunlop in London. "They're out buying magazines, newspapers, DVDs, or watching telly."

Books are all the rage

And yet shared reading is bigger than ever in Britain. Tens of thousands of people are estimated to belong to a book club, be it through local libraries, friends, or neighborhood groups. A popular daytime TV show has its own bookclub spot, and the titles it endorses show astonishing uplift in sales. Penguin has orchestrated "One Book, One City" events that have moved thousands of additional copies of books. The BBC's Big Read event last year got the whole nation reading the classics and popular titles, again boosting book sales. Reading groups are the subject of at least one television soap opera, and, perhaps not surprisingly, a best-selling novel, The Reading Group by Elizabeth Noble.

Yet the experience, it seems, is shared mostly by females. Noble, for example, says less than one in 10 book clubs in Britain are all male.

"By and large they are almost always a female thing," she says. But why? "Perhaps it's for the same reason that you don't find rugby clubs packed out with women."

The reluctance of British men to discuss literature does not necessarily mean they are completely averse to indulging in other forms of cultural discussion. Just as Chilton and his book worms use the pub for their literary discussions, countless others find the public bar a convenient forum for more middle-brow exchanges on soccer or film, music or current affairs.

As Mr. Gill puts it: "When six blokes make a commitment to meet in the pub, they sit and drink and talk about other things like football, they don't necessarily want to talk about a book they've all read."

Meetings are 'a female thing'

According to Penguin, over the three years of its book club competition, all-male groups have been exceptionally rare, though mixed-gender groups are on the increase.

"Book clubs tend to be composed of women, partly because there is a very high proportion of books bought by women," says Louisa Symington, publicity director at Penguin.

"The actual meeting seems to be more of a female thing. They seem to find the whole sharing of information easier and are more comfortable with the sharing of information than men are."

Moreover, many women are reluctant to include men in their circles for fear it would create inhibitions and discourage openness. Noble says women behave very differently when discussing books if there are men present.

"It completely changes the dynamic," she says. "Women are more on their best behavior and a little of the intimacy is lost." Her principal observation is that the men in these groups are less "emotionally vocal" and that women "are better at cutting to the chase emotionally."

Chilton agrees. The Racketeers, he says, enjoy robust, frank, rough-and-tumble exchanges that are more about ideas than emotions. Ironically, he says, the group was only set up in the first place because one member was not allowed to join his wife's reading circle.

"Our responses aren't necessarily about our feelings - women maybe look to that as a first response to a novel," he says. "We tend to talk about the way the book is written, style, structure, use of language. We are very interested in ideas, the ideology behind the book, the way it connects us to the world."

Girl talk is the point

For Anna Lofthouse, a London-based editor who has run the Blurb Book Club for almost four years, male involvement would undermine the raison d'être of the group. Like Noble, her circle has thought of inviting male partners as a one-off - but not permanently.

"Part of the idea of the book club is the girl support group," she says. "Men would change the dynamic. You would get a male perspective, and that would be interesting, but we just don't get confrontational.

"That's girls for you."

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