A Week in Books: Reading is for lads too

On Sunday evening, I was dining on oysters in a famous Paris brasserie (well, somebody has to) when Zidane's penalty beat David James. Even in such a gastronomic shrine, the blokes around the bar erupted. The man at the next table leaned over to me and muttered sympathetically, "It's only football." In general, the French seem to manage the "only football" shrug in times of victory - which takes some character - as well as in moments of defeat - which any loser can do.

On Sunday evening, I was dining on oysters in a famous Paris brasserie (well, somebody has to) when Zidane's penalty beat David James. Even in such a gastronomic shrine, the blokes around the bar erupted. The man at the next table leaned over to me and muttered sympathetically, "It's only football." In general, the French seem to manage the "only football" shrug in times of victory - which takes some character - as well as in moments of defeat - which any loser can do.

For many younger British men, it really seems as if "only football" defines their horizons. Along with this single-minded passion goes an aversion to other leisure pastimes - above all, to reading books. Publishers, librarians and everyone else involved in the promotion of reading have long known that book-shunning lads in their teens and twenties represent a vast lost continent - and a vast lost opportunity. Pacify this wildest of demographic tribes, hook them into a life-long reading habit, and the literary marketplace will expand for decades to come. No wonder many in the book trade greeted Nick Hornby as a saviour.

Not surprisingly, Hornby plays a striker's role in a new campaign by Penguin to turn young men from 16 to 30 on to the joys of text. His pop-based collection of memoir-essays, 31 Songs, features as the opening title in the "Are You Good Booking?" promotion. Penguin cites research that confirms the dismal results from every other recent study of gender differences. It shows that young men under 25 read, on average, a mere two hours per week for pleasure; and that 40 per cent of British men of any age never read any books at all.

To spearhead this assault on the laddish mind, the publisher has targeted a part of the male brain that predates even the mania for football and music. Put very crudely (which is what the "Are You Good Booking?" material does), the campaign wants to persuade young men that reading books will enhance their pulling power. Flying in the face of experience, it pretends that bookworms get laid. Photos display a model in a skimpy top and ripped jeans draped around a guy with his nose in a book. Oddly, the book happens to be Melvin Burgess's novel Doing It, a pitiless dissection of the teenage psyche with few earnest discussions about much-loved reading matter.

A special NOP survey for Penguin found that 85 per cent of women think that talking about a favourite book will increase a man's chance of a date; and 58 per cent think that men who read are "more interesting and more intelligent". In contrast, a bloke who rabbits on about football and motors would deter 64 per cent. Best of all, "78 per cent of those questioned... thought a guy with a book would be better in bed". Hallelujah!

Desperate times need desperate measures. I will forgive this rather tragic sales pitch if it stirs a few book-averse men to pick up a tome or two. Yet such stunts leave crucial questions unasked. The hardest concerns background and schooling. Boys who come from supportive homes (not merely "middle-class", although that often makes things easier) will have been encouraged to read from early childhood. Those who don't, won't. Can a few lewd ads compensate for years of neglect?

Perhaps the dodgiest proposition in such a drive has to do with the benefits of reading itself. The enjoyment of books will turn you into a social and/or sexual success, it claims. Complete drivel. Many highly successful men hardly read at all. A few highly successful publishers hardly read at all. (No, don't ask.) Exams aside, a love of books will seldom help the lads to score. Its value will emerge in other moods: at just those moments when Zidane - or his counterparts in every other walk of life - steps up and breaks your heart.

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