These cadets at West Point are among the rare numbers of men reading books these days.
Kurt Vonnegut served in the 106th Infantry Division and was a prisoner of war in World War II. Ernest Hemingway was wounded in World War I and hunted big game on the Serengeti. The playwright Christopher Marlowe was not only stabbed in a bar fight, he was also probably a secret agent.
That kind of bravado just might be what it takes to get guys reading again: a novelist who's a cross between James Bond and Lawrence of Arabia. After all, isn't it possible that today's writers just aren't manly enough to maintain the nonreading American male's interest?
Once upon a time, it was possible to be a writer and a badass. Not all that long ago, the stable of writerly archetypes included the manly man, able to fight the foreign hordes by day and turn a decent phrase by night. Lord Byron didn't just create Don Juan; he was Don Juan. And in between his constant Casanova-ing, he found the time to fight off the Ottoman Empire for the Greeks, just because that was no less his calling than the contemplation of verse.
Where have all the booze-swilling Dylan Thomases gone? Without the kinds of drinkers (Faulkner), brawlers (Hemingway) and lotharios (Bellow) who used to write our greatest works of literature, it's no wonder that masculinity has gone elsewhere (say, Kid Rock) for self-validation.
There's no literary equivalent of Byron (never mind Hemingway) these days - and that hurts the prospect of reading as a form of male entertainment. Guys are looking elsewhere for role models and, in the process, finding more and more reasons not to read. Sure, every once in a while there's a cute news story about a major league pitcher who happens to jot down some verse in his spare time or a rapper with a secret passion for Petrarch, but where's the confident, manly devotion to the arts that once was so common? Writing and reading have become the domain of women, with the gentler sex reading 80% of all fiction, according to a NPR report in 2007; consequently, men are left looking to athletes, movie stars, rockers, pseudo-celebrities and politicians-turned-sexual-deviants to provide them with their manly wisdom and inspiration. What kinds of role models are these, though? Give me a sci-fi writer who fought Nazis over a salacious congressman with a twentysomething mistress any day.
Aside from a few literary superstars, and despite increased exposure via the Internet and intense publicity campaigns, there are few authors today whom the average American male could successfully pair up with their respective titles. Even fewer are recognizable on sight. Ask a group of guys today who their heroes are, or who their idols were growing up, and you might get a lot of Michael Jordans or John Waynes or maybe even a MacGyver or two, but you won't hear Robert Frost or Stephen Crane.