Saturday, April 14, 2007

Boys' Own Books

The Guardian recently reported the following:

'The runaway success of "The Dangerous Book for Boys" has inspired Penguin to start a list of "boy's own" classics. Six end-of-empire adventure tales are being given nostalgic covers, aimed squarely at the Father's Day market in June. They are: The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; She by H. Rider Haggard; The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope; The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers; The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan; and The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton. A dashing collection for any middle-aged boy's bookshelf.'

One commentator has pointed out that five of the six titles listed above were not originally aimed at boys; rather, they were intended for adults. Surely it should be four-and-a-half, for The Lost World is prefaced by a verse which reads:

'I have wrought my simple plan
If I bring one hour of joy
To the boy who's half a man
Or the man who's half a boy.'

Of course, quite where this leaves female readers is unclear, both regarding Conan Doyle's book and the six titles as a whole. Did ACD think that neither girls nor women would enjoy The Lost World? And do the folk at Penguin think that these books—with their emphasis on adventure, thrills, and derring-do—are more apt to strike a chord with men than with women? I've read three of the books on the list and enjoyed them thoroughly, and expect I would enjoy the other three equally as much; indeed, they're all on that ever-expanding list of books that I mean to get to before I shuffle off this mortal coil, and at the rate the list is growing I shall have to live well beyond my allotted three score and ten in order to fit them all in.

It does make me ponder, though, the difference between men and women when it comes to reading. All my life I've read widely and happily in a variety of genres. When I was younger I was as apt to pick up a Three Investigators book as a Nancy Drew, and these days I'll read Robert Goddard, John Buchan, and George MacDonald Fraser as readily as I will pick up books by Joanne Harris or Patricia Carlon. However, a quick look at the list of books I've read over the last three years shows that the vast majority are by men, and are probably aimed at a male market. The preponderance of books about the Arctic probably skews things to a certain extent: as a novel I read recently comments, relatively few women seem to be interested in, say, the Franklin Expedition, and I suspect more men than women have read Sebastian Junger's A Perfect Storm, Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven, Eric Lomax's The Railway Man, and Andrew Greig's Summit Fever (all of which I would highly recommend; more of Greig in a future post).

The point is, however, that while many women undoubtedly pick up and enjoy books that are aimed at men, fewer men would consider reading anything that seemed, however vaguely, to be aimed at women. When I was reading Nancy Drew books I would have been happy to read Hardy Boys adventures as well, and probably would have had I not gone on to Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie at an early age; but how many boys who gobbled up the Hardy Boys books would have been equally comfortable reading Nancy Drew? Not many, I'd wager.

So I wish Penguin every success with their new line of classic 'boys' own' adventures; but I'd be interested to know how many women end up picking them up and enjoying them too. They'd certainly make as good a Mother's Day gift as a Father's Day gift, with the added advantage that they'll last longer than flowers, contain fewer calories than chocolates, and provide more enjoyment than an overpriced Mother's Day brunch at a crowded restaurant.


Stephen Bacon said...

Loving the blog, Barbara. I discovered it only recently, but I've been catching up on your posts from earlier in the year.

Just had to comment that as a child I was an avid Three Investigators fan (still am), who quickly moved onto The Hardy Boys series. I also collected the Nancy Drew books, but I made sure to hide them when my friends came round. Now I'm in my mid/late 30s, I feel I can now confess such things.

Barbara Roden said...

Hi, Stephen! Thanks for the comment.

It's amazing the number of people in their 30s and 40s who read, and still fondly remember, the Three Investigators series. Reading some of them to Tim, I was pleasantly surprised by how little they'd dated. A lot of Jupe's gadgets still sound modern and clever, and the stories themselves are well written and pacy. Plus the inclusion of a cameo appearance by Hitchcock in the early titles is still a lot of fun. It sparked Tim's interest in Hitchcock the filmmaker, and he's seen PSYCHO, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, and THE LADY VANISHES and enjoyed them all (he likes to spot Hitch's cameos in the films, too).

I recently pulled my Nancy Drews out of storage, and enjoyed seeing them again. I don't know how well they'd stand up to re-reading, but I loved them at the time.

Wurmbrand said...

Oh, I would have liked to read The Hardy Boys as a lad, but read nancy Drew whenever I could get them. (They seem to have been more readily available to me.)