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April 3, 2009

Man Books

Another recent Medill grad just went to work for Playboy magazine, which sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. But this was her dream job, even if she is starting with working on the Web site and not directly on the printed edition at this point.

The other day, she invited all of her contacts to visit the latest revamp of and comment on at least one article.

Other than the pictures of scantily clad women dominating the site, the article that stuck out for me was in the Entertainment section.

The Top 20 Books Every Man Should Read

Of the 20 books listed, I have read three and a half of them: Hamlet, Hell's Angels, The Long Goodbye, and who hasn't read Metamorphosis, the lead story of the Kafka collection.

Of those that I have read, I would agree that they meet the criteria that Playboy sets forth:

There are plenty of guy reads about war, sex and sports, but only a handful that transcend those topics. These are books that help a man discover and define his own masculinity.

Of those I have read, none meets the criteria better than Hell's Angels, a look inside the infamous biker gang based on Hunter S. Thompson's real life experience. Thompson went the distance, even getting beaten to within an inch of his life to get his story. It was a book I found after reading about his experience in another book detailing the New Journalism movement that Thompson was a part of.

The Playboy list does invite some scrutiny. What's a list of "greats" without some problems.

First of all, there are way too many collections of short stories on the list. While a collection of multiple pieces could examine the male condition from multiple angles, why not choose a singular work that covers all of the bases?

There is one that Playboy itself picks: Fight Club. The masterful work of male bonding taken to the extreme not only looks at the personal struggles of its protagonist, much as Hamlet does, but it also covers the topics of sex, and addiction, and war (well, terrorism). Plus it has boxing, so sports is covered. Push aside one of these collections to include the singular.

The next beef is probably a personal one but it goes to the whole idea of being a man. Sure Maxim is the magazine that prides itself on being up on the gadgets that men love, but Playboy shouldn't fall behind the technological curve if it still wants to be relevant. The problem I speak of is the availability of the titles on the Kindle.

I went out to try and get samples of the books that I hadn't read on the Kindle. Wouldn't you know that most were not available? How can you have a list of "Man Books" without them being available on the latest device other than the iPhone that most men would actually like to own (if they read books)?

It seems as if there is an important piece missing. Plus Playboy missed a perfect opportunity for cross-promotion by not ensuring that the books were on the device. Imagine if Amazon were to have placed this list prominently on its home page. The discussion could have gone on for weeks, and Playboy could have taken in some of the profits from the sales, something that they could use if they want to stay in business.

But alas, most people will have to stay with the traditional book reading method if they want to complete the man-themed collection.

As for other quibbles, let me suggest a few books that should have been considered for the list, maybe at the expense of James Ellroy, who is the only author on the list who has a work that I have actually stopped reading prior to finishing. His books might make great movies, but his words put me to sleep.

  • A Million Little Pieces by James Frey -- Sure the memoir turns out to be somewhat fictional, but don't we all put a little spin on our memories to make them seem more dramatic, even if it is only to us? The book deals with the same themes that Fight Club does: addiction, sex, inner struggle. Plus the book is the ultimate Oprah snub and any self-respecting man could get behind that (Ok, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections is the original Oprah snub, but Frey deserves some credit for making the queen of self-promotion lose her cool on national television).
  • Libra by Don DeLillo -- If you are going to kick James Ellroy off the list, why not replace him with another tale about JFK? DeLillo breaks down the time leading up to the assassination as only he can. We are taken inside the minds of all those involved in one of the greatest tragedies of our time, and it is mostly based on actual research done on the event to make it about as historically accurate as anything written about the event can be. DeLillo deserves at least some place on this list as he is one of America's least-appreciated literary greats.
  • Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein -- Heinlein not only takes on the challenge of describing the trials of being a man, he does it through the guise of a Martian. Sure, it is a little sci-fi in nature, but the novel still covers all the bases including sex, drugs, and it even adds in religion. There is no greater "outsider" view of life than what is put forth here and it definitely is introspective enough to handle being one of the "man novels".

So there you have it. Three books that I would put onto this list in a heartbeat. I think they could easily replace Ellroy, and any of the short story sets. After that, it would be in a tough fight to displace one of the current standing works.

And despite the criticism of the list, kudos still go to Playboy for continuing to embrace good work on the literary front and creating this somewhat-definitive list.

This entry is tagged: amazon, books, Fight Club, Hamlet, Hunter S. Thompson, journalism, Kafka, library, literature, men, Playboy, Raymond Chandler, sex

Posted by bmiraski at April 3, 2009 3:41 PM