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We need to talk about boys (and books)

We are currently experiencing a social revolution in which women are standing up and refusing to tolerate the bad behaviour of certain men. It is happening in small towns where they are marching to make their voices heard, and under the bright lights of Hollywood, where actresses are wearing black to protest against abuse and misogyny.

But, after our grievances are aired and allegations are addressed, there will come a time when the question will be asked, ‘what next?’ How can we change a culture of toxic masculinity that has allowed this behaviour to rise and take hold?

I imagine that the answers to this question will be many and varied; it is in parenting, in education, in politics and in economic structures.

However, one small step in changing our world might be in encouraging more boys and men to read fiction in order to help them understand the lived experience of women, or a person of any gender, for that matter.

Studies have revealed that reading can play an important role in teaching empathy, helping readers understand the perspective of others; something that seems to be lacking in the men who behave in an abusive way towards women.

According to an SBS article, the University of Toronto study suggested that reading narrative fiction improved an individual’s ability to determine the thoughts or feelings of others.

The study measured a participant’s degree of empathy using the ‘Mind of the Eyes Test’, in which participants looked at 36 photographs of people’s eyes and were asked to deduce what the person was feeling or thinking. The results revealed that those who read fiction received significantly higter scores in the test, and gained even higher results when a subject’s personality and base character were accounted for. When reading about cultures different to their own, participants developed greater empathy towards those cultures and races.

It is not the first time this kind of study has drawn this kind of conclusion, with research in 2014 also revealing that reading helped break down prejudices.

And another study on reading and empathy showed that fiction helped readers ‘stand in the shoes’ of different characters.

It is hard to read the stories of those of a different gender and fail to understand that their inner workings are not dissimilar to your own. Books reveal that we all have the same doubts, insecurities and fears. It is reassuring to see that men and women are not as different as they might sometimes seem, whether in the media or advertising, or distorted family constructs of womanhood or manhood.

Similarly, books can break down prejudices around race and sexuality, helping others understand a different way of life, sometimes even through familiarity. In The Hate Race, Maxine Beneba Clarke revealed to me a childhood that was very similar to my own, apart from one difference – I was part of the white majority, whereas she was not. In reading about her experience, I came to understand the struggle she faced throughout her childhood, shaping her perspectives today.

Sally Morgan’s My Place is set in a street and a childhood that would be familiar to many Australians, with the first section, in particular, having a very familiar ring to it. Amid this familiarity, it also told the story of Indigenous Australians, helping those who recognised the setting understand the implications of the painful, racist history of Australia.

Books can also be useful in illuminating the consequences of bad behaviour, and the impact of that behaviour on other, or characters. From a distance, the reader can see the effect of abuse on children (The Man Who Loved Children) or on their wives (Big Little Lies), and how it might appear to the wider world. Often, there are clear consequences of this behaviour, which might not always be possible to see or interpret in reality.

But, you might ask, don’t boys and men read already? Not always in this way. Statistics on the reading habits of Australians revealed that boys and men are less likely to read fiction than women.

While it is positive to read anything at all, perhaps we are doing a disservice to our boys by not actively encouraging them to read fiction for the benefits it may offer. Of course, it is important that boys have the opportunity to read all kinds of books, but a more concerted effort is needed to ensure they are also exposed to the ideas available only through fiction, and literary fiction in particular.

Having said this, in practice, it may be harder and more complex than it seems. My son has just started reading chapter books, and at this stage, I can see what a delicate thing his enjoyment of books is. A little too much pressure from me and it might evaporate altogether.

However, I have been surprised that while he might choose Minecraft and water pistols in play, he loves to read books by Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl, alongside those about extreme weather and dangerous animals. He has also discovered David Walliams’ books, which while irreverent and funny, also offer subtle lessons on morality and acceptance. Mr Stink (what little boy could resist a title like that?) centres on a valiant little girl who feels lonely and excluded, but stands tall due to her compassion and kindness towards a homeless man. As long as these books are in front of our boys, we might be surprised about how enthusiastically they are embraced.

And what about men? If only they understood that there is little that is more attractive than a man who reads, who has the capacity to mix talk of footy and F Scott Fitzgerald, that might even be motivation enough. Perhaps women who look on in interest when they notice a man engrossed in a book have some inkling that a man who reads is a good bet.

After this era of revelation has passed, we will be looking for ways of creating a better future for men and women, in which abuse is not tolerated. But while making changes now, we also need to look further ahead, and teach our children to respect and understand each other. Fiction might be one small piece of the puzzle that will help build this understanding.



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