Activities for a Wasted Day


I'm spending today avoiding work on a paper, and as part of that I decided to tally up my books and classify them as fiction or non-fiction. I've heard from various sources that men generally prefer non-fiction and women generally prefer fiction, so I decided to test my bookshelf out and see where I fell.

I started out just marking books as either Fiction or Non-Fiction. Then I encountered some classification problems. What about cookbooks? Manuals for role playing games? City guides? I decided to create a broad "Instructional" category to encompass those books that are probably technically non-fiction, but which I don't think of when I think of non-fictional books. This is easier than, for example, classifying cookbooks I use regularly as Non-Fiction, while classifying cookbooks with elaborate recipes requiring ingredients from five different ethnic grocery stores and from which I have never cooked a recipe as Fiction. So: Cookbooks, RPG manuals, computer programming primers, style guides, and, most significantly, legal texts are all instructional. This might somewhat throw off the results, since the legal texts are arguably non-fiction, but whatever.

The other classifying problem I had was with books that straddle the line between fiction and non-fiction. What to do with Chretien de Troyes's Arthurian Romances, written as fiction but which I read primarily for its historical value? What about books written in the middle ages as histories, but filled with fantastic and implausible happenings, such as Gregory of Tours's History of the Franks and Galbert de Bruges's Murder of Charles the Good? And what of credulous histories like Herbert Asbury's The Barbary Coast, which is ostensibly a history of criminality in San Francisco during the Gold Rush but which consists primarily of breathless retellings of apocryphal anecdotes? How, not to put too fine a point upon it, should I classify the Bullshit Histories? I decided to create a category for Dubious Non-Fiction and leave it at that.

Finally, how do I classify my copy of the Bible? Fiction? Non-Fiction? Dubious Non-Fiction? I decided to mark it down as Instructional and side-step the whole issue.

The final tally came out to 86 Fiction, 32 Non-Fiction, 93 Instructional (give or take; I estimated how many law books are sitting in my locker right now), and 4 Dubious Non-Fiction. This tally includes only those books to which I have easy access here in New York, not those in storage with my parents. The lion's share of those instructional books are law books, which might throw the ultimate Fiction/Non-Fiction balance off kilter, but I feel they shouldn't count since I don't really own them of my own free will. I made an exception for those law books I purchased for non-law school reasons, like G. Edward White's Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: Law and the Inner Self and Lawrence M. Friedman's History of American Law. I feel my classification is relatively fair.

So, once again I defy expectations, at least in terms of book tastes. Take that, gender essentialists!


Ooh. Damnit -- you've just ensured that I will spend some portion of my weekend doing just this with my book collection, which numbers in the Very Large and is compressed into milkcrates and boxes since I don't own any bookshelves right now. This will be a large pain in the ass, and I will assuredly encounter some of the same problems that you describe above. (Elementary Sanskrit, for instance, is Fiction if I've ever seen it. I also own the New Testament in Chinese, which, seeing as I do not speak or read Chinese to any degree whatsoever, is so doubly Fiction that it almost cancels out and comes back to Truth. We have been over this before.)

I suspect that my bookshelf will come out to be more fiction than nonfiction in the end, but I wonder if this is one of those issues of degrees -- if, for instance, everyone will lean toward fiction but men are supposed to lean less than women. Perhaps my bookshelf is 70% fiction and yours is only 60%. Or whatnot.

Why am I trying to find ways in which you and I may yet turn out gender-adherent? This seems somewhat futile and also wholly against my own usual leanings. My central point should be this: this project is going to eat up a ridiculous amount of my time and energy, but now that you have brought it up I am incapable of resisting it. Fucker!

That possible explanation of the statistic actually occurred to me independently between when I posted this and when I read your comment. I need to go investigate this factoid and figure out where it comes from and what, precisely, it means to say. I vaguely recall reading it several times (perhaps every time?) at Matthew Yglesias's blog, so that seems a fruitful place to start.

Well, I found this, an NPR story on the dire state of Reading. It begins with an anecdote about author Ian McEwan and his son standing in a park and handing out free novels. Women took nearly all of the novels, while men "frowned in suspicion, or distaste." I like to think that the men eyed the books warily, poked them with a stick, then decided to play it safe and move on.

The story goes on to relate the results of an AP/Ipsos poll on reading. In addition to reading being down generally, women read nearly twice as much as men and women read more than men in all categories except history and biography. Women also, according to other surveys, make up 80% of the fiction market. I'm not sure if this means "80% of sales of works of fiction are to women" or if it means "of the people who purchase fiction, 80% are women." That is, does it mean "I sold 100 novels last year, 80 to women and 20 to men," or does it mean, "5 people bought novels last year; four were women, one was a man?"

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on November 18, 2007 5:48 PM.

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