Why Boys Don’t Read

While it’s not been my experience with my own boys, there has been much discussion over the fact that boys aren’t reading books. There are also many theories about how to help boys learn to love reading. One of my friends, a mom of three boys, sent me an article this week by a man with a very interesting theory.

Martin Cothran writes:

The entire educational establishment has tried for over 50 years to force boys into their effeminate mold, and in the process, they’ve succeeded in evacuating literature of all the things boys like in books: action, adventure, danger, bloodletting—and an iron moral code that is taught, not by smarmy sermonizing, but by immersing them in the moral universe of a story about a hero who not only believes in this code, but enforces it with a vengeance.

Because boys are longing for real heroes and real adventure, many are drawn to superheros and comic books:

The entire educational establishment has tried for over 50 years to force boys into their effeminate mold, and in the process, they’ve succeeded in evacuating literature of all the things boys like in books: action, adventure, danger, bloodletting—and an iron moral code that is taught, not by smarmy sermonizing, but by immersing them in the moral universe of a story about a hero who not only believes in this code, but enforces it with a vengeance.

He goes on to say:

Boys are not interested in getting in touch with themselves, and it is particularly off-putting when they are told that it is good for them. The minute the politically correct schoolmarms approach, they head for the woods, where they are free to pick up sticks and pretend they are swords and fight monsters and hunt frogs and swing from trees—anything but to be preached at by people whose sermons consist of high-minded meaninglessness.

Most boys are born cynics and are rightly suspicious of moralistic platitudes. They respect words only to the extent that they see them followed by actions. Tell them (in mere words) what the right thing to do is, and they will look at you suspiciously and walk away. Do the right thing—preferably at the risk of your own person or reputation, and they will follow you in zealous allegiance.

The older authors of books for boys knew this: they forsook the sermonizing for the story of men in action. G. A. Henty, Johnston McCulley, Anthony Hope, H. Rider Haggard, P. C. Wren, Howard Pyle, C. S. Forester, as well as Western authors like Louis L’Amour and Max Brand—these were authors boys not only didn’t avoid, but sought out. Even a few female authors were on to this secret about boys: Baronness Orczy, she of Scarlet Pimpernel fame, being the most notable, as well as Laura Ingalls Wilder. Their books were once illumined by flashlights under bed covers so that, late at night, when they were supposed to be asleep, the young male reader could find out what happened next. To do the same with most modern therapeutic fiction would be a waste of batteries.

This is not a romantic discourse on the nature of the boy and how we should leave him to develop on his own, but merely a defense of the idea that he has a nature, and that it should be taken into account in how we deal with him. A necessary part of this (given that this nature doesn’t always lend itself to doing what the dictates of civilization require) is a straightforward and honest discipline, something which too often these days has been replaced by psychotropic drugs.

Boys needs to be tamed, not treated.

I completely agree.

Mr. Cothran concludes with a list of books he recommends for boys. My boys have already read many of these, but I look forward to introducing them to the others. Here is his list:

  • Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder (and anything else Wilder ever wrote)
  • The Jack Tales, by Jonathan Chase
  • Call it Courage, by Armstrong Sperry
  • Robin Hood, by Roger Lancelyn Green
  • King Arthur, by Roger Lancelyn Green
  • Adam of the Road, by Elizabeth Janet Gray
  • Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi
  • Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Lost in the Barrens, by Farley Mowat (and anything else Mowat ever wrote)
  • Goodbye Kate, by Billy C. Clark (and anything else Clark ever wrote)
  • The Bronze Bow, by Elizabeth George Speare
  • The Mask of Zorro, by Johnston McCulley (and the rest of the Zorro books)
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel and El Dorado, by Baroness Orczy (and the rest of the Scarlet Pimpernel books)
  • Men of Iron, by Howard Pyle (and anything else Pyle ever wrote)
  • Shane, by Jack Shaeffer
  • The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
  • Old Squire’s Farm, by C. A. Stephens
  • Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe
  • The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow, by Allan French
  • Little Britches, by Ralph Moody
  • Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain
  • A Texas Ranger, by N. A. Jennings
  • Penrod, by Booth Tarkington
  • The Jungle Books, by Rudyard Kipling
  • Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
  • The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Edison
  • The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien

3 thoughts on “Why Boys Don’t Read

  1. sedgegrass says:

    Great reading list! The adventure books that my 84 year old father read were still my boys’ favorites to read. They sat on a shelf at the family cabin and were read on rainy afternoons or late at night. Then they were usually reenacted the next day!

  2. thehomeschoolmomblog says:

    The list is great! Thanks for sharing.
    I have often found that if boys don’t like to read, it’s because dad doesn’t read. My husband is a bibliophile, so my son picked up on it as well. If we want our children to read, we need to lead by example.

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