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MANdatory reading

  • Published at 06:59 pm November 18th, 2019
At_November, 2019_Men's booklist

With this year’s International Men’s Day drawing near, it is perhaps in our best interests to reevaluate what we mean when we talk about masculinity and what it is to be a man. Even though some discourse has made its rounds on social media platforms, there are still many, many more conversations that need to be had about men’s issues, such as their mental health and suicide rates, and toxic masculinity. This list will feature a handful of books to help you start these conversations in your own circles.       

My Many Colored Days

Dr Seuss

It is hardly news that many men, often from a very young age, are told to keep their emotions to themselves. Vulnerability is seen as weak and ‘unmanly’, and any expression of it is often followed by rebukes such as “Boys don’t cry” or “Man up”. This societal pressure to bottle up feelings and not talk about one’s suffering not only adversely affects mental health, but can even lead to far more violent and destructive outbursts later in life.

As such, it is important for parents to teach their children to talk about what or how they’re feeling. Dr Seuss’ way with words and the vibrant artwork in My Many Colored Days makes it a wonderful place to begin that conversation. Seuss ties a wide array of colours and animals to a range of human moods and emotions, making the concept of feelings easier for younger readers to understand.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Benjamin Alire Sáenz

It isn’t unusual to stumble upon conversations and find language typically associated with queer people, or even simply associated with generally feminine attributes, being used in a pejorative sense: “gay”, “sissy”, “meyeder moto…”. It is as if anything that deviates from the macho, heteronormative narrative falls under the aforementioned category of ‘unmanly’. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Being a man isn’t a singular experience, and it isn’t uncommon for a journey towards self-exploration or understanding to meander through the spectra of gender and sexuality.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a critically acclaimed fictional story about young Aristotle Mendoza and Dante Quintana, 15 year-old boys growing up in El Paso, Texas, in the ’80s. The book explores their friendship over a couple of years, as they learn to deal with their own circumstances and each other’s, and eventually, according to the Goodreads synopsis, “learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be”. Although the book is targeted towards a young adult demographic, it has received praise from young and old readers alike, such as renowned author Rick Riordan, who recommends it as a great read to “spur discussions about identity and acceptance”.

How Not To Be a Boy

Robert Webb

In his autobiographical memoir How Not To Be a Boy, Robert Webb takes a good, long look at his life, and how his experiences shaped him into the man he is today. Webb views these experiences — the love, loss, grief, and sorrow in his life — through a humorous yet critical lense, highlighting the unreasonable and often ludicrous expectations and social stigma that men face at different stages in their lives. What rules does one follow in order to be a Certified Man? And can they really be of any use?

In a similar, but far more sombre vein, Poorna Bell’s Chase the Rainbow is also an autobiographical memoir, dealing with men’s mental health issues and suicide. Poorna, the Executive Editor of The Huffington Post UK, published the memoir in 2017 after her husband Rob Bell’s suicide two years prior. He had suffered from depression from a young age, and later developed a drug addiction while trying to self-medicate his illness. “An honest yet uplifting account of a woman's life affected (but not defined) by the suicide of her husband and the deadly paradox of modern-day masculinity,” reads the Goodreads synopsis.

All That Man Is

David Szalay

Szalay’s All That Man Is follows the stories of nine men in different stages of their lives in nine separate short stories, all of which -- although only connected thematically -- add up to create a picture which delves into “the state of modern manhood”, here and now in the 21st century. As the stories progress, the protagonists grow older with each new chapter, and the weather outside gets colder still. A Booker Prize Nominee in 2016, All That Man Is is likely to prove to be an exceptional read to lovers of short stories and literary fiction, and readers who wish to venture into exploratory narratives of what it may mean to be a man.

The Descent of Man

Grayson Perry

In The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry review – a man’s man is yesterday’s hero, written by Matt Haig and published on The Guardian’s website, Haig says, ‘The solution, according to this book, is not to abandon masculinity altogether, but to shift it a little. He points to a new model of manhood, a more tender model [...] He calls out to his fellow men, suggesting we need to learn that embarrassment is not fatal, that change is possible, and that men need to “stop giving other men, and themselves, a hard time for not attaining the standards of masculinity”.’

This is precisely what Perry advocates in his book The Descent of Man. Masculinity and the roles associated with it, when not outright toxic, can prove to be severely constraining. In spite of this, however, he doesn’t suggest that we do away with the concept and construct of masculinity altogether, but proposes an upgrade or a development of the term instead. Written in a concise and accessible manner, The Descent of Man is likely to provide a great starting point for understanding the deconstruction of modern-day masculinity and the stereotypes associated with it.