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Is it even meaningful to recommend books for “men” and “women” anymore?

Emily Temple

July 11, 2022, 11:03am

If it ever was, I mean. But let’s back up.

Today, Esquire published a list of 80 Books Every Man Should Read, which may ring some bells if you too are an ancient blogger/reader of book lists—it’s an update to their very bad and roundly mocked 1915 2015 version, which included only one book by a woman (Flannery O’Connor) and less than ten by writers of color.

In their introduction to the new list, the Esquire editors acknowledge that the original list was not their “finest moment,” and point out that the next year, in an effort to redeem themselves, they asked eight women to recommend 80 Books Every Person Should Read. That was fine, they say, but “should we not just make our own amends?” So this year, seven years after the original list, they’ve decided to try again with their original conceit: 80 Books Every Man Should Read.

Now, that list format (X Books for X Kind of Person) has always been a little silly. I say this as someone who has written countless versions of it since I started writing for the internet in (yikes) 2010. But now, in 2022, it feels particularly meaningless to suggests a list of essential reads for men. Aren’t we sort of…past the idea that men and women should read different books? Haven’t all of us in the reading public more or less agreed by now that gender is a construct, and that anyone can and should and will read anything they want? Obviously, Esquire gestured at this sentiment with their 2016 amendment to the headline—so why go back? (At the risk of giving away trade secrets, it’s probably about traffic. But still, it hits a little funny this year, as Americans continue to be dragged kicking and screaming into the past.)

As for the new list itself, I’m not mad at it. It’s pretty random, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though I’m not sure the same man (or person) is reading all these books (Anthony Kiedis’s memoir and bell hooks? The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant and My Dark Vanessa? It’s possible, but…). Still, it has plenty of gems, and one hopes it will point at least a few readers toward new discoveries. But for me, the chaos and randomness of it only underscores my sneaking suspicion—that it’s past time for this genre of list to retire.

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