Monday, May 19, 2014

Manliness Reading List

The Art of Manliness Blog lists several "must reads" for men.  Sadly, the first book on that list is the absurd, cryptic, and melodramatic headcase that is Robert Bly's Iron John, a book about which I've blogged before.  For those unfamiliar with Bly's work, it is a male self-help book about emancipating the Wild Man in You so that he can find that perfect Wild Woman out there in society and make crazy (yip, Wild) sex and feel what it means to live (that Wild) life.  

Pretty much everything else in the Art of Manliness list is a self-help book, usually about self-esteem and its surrounding issues.  And that makes me wonder:   Is the list an unintended parody?  A reading list for self-help books.......about.....manliness?  

I'm not trying to suggest that manliness is obvious and it's definitely not straightforward.  But perhaps the best that can be said about manliness is that it's paradoxical, vexed, strange, and always will be, no matter what a bookshelf of self-help books will say to the contrary.

Books, Manliness, Masculinities | Permalink


John - Interestingly enough, "The Art of Manliness" blog was started by a student of mine, Brett McKay when he was still in law school. He is quite the entrepreneur. It is funny to see this mixture of embrace of the past with tools of the present melded in this blog. He was a very good student.

I think his first blog was called "The Frugal Law Student" and was all about money saving strategies to graduate with no debt. And actually, much of the blog (as with the book) is (I believe) co-written with his wife Kate, who is herself very sharp. So knowing them as I do, I can assure you that the list is not intended as parody. I think what Brett and Kate are aiming at is to try to recapture what they see as lost values in the society, values which they feel are expressed through distinctive (sort of) gender roles.

Ironically, much of the material on the website really is gender neutral, that is, the advice applies equally well for men and women. But men or women wanting to adopt traditional modes of masculine self-presentation without its most toxic expression will find a lot of material here, most of it fairly innocuous, much of it charming and informative, even if presented through this rather anachronistic lens. I suspect )but am not certain) they are fairly conservative, not an unusual thing in this part of the country.

They are true children of the 21st century though, and so you won't see any hardcore antediluvian positions like suggestions that women should not work, should be submissive to their husbands, that the do not have agency etc. (although frankly I haven't looked in awhile). I think their work comes from a very pure place (even if I think misguided in some respects). And I agree with a good deal of it insofar as the picture they paint of masculinity is a better and truer description of real "manliness" (i.e. human decency) than the immature frat boy, backwoodsman, bodybuilder or Don Juan figures which often pass as "manly" in our culture. So to that extent I definitely applauded their effort. But I do think they are mistaken in thinking that the true locus of the values they would like to promote lies in promoting and gender distinctions.

Posted by: Tamara Piety | May 26, 2014 9:47:36 AM

Thanks, Tamara. I think that I essentially agree with your appraisal of Art of Manliness; it is innocuous, and there is nothing that I have read on it that suggests an endorsement for misogyny in any form. But the reading list is....hoakie, a little cornball. Manliness isn't--or isn't primarily--a subject for self-improvement books that strive to shore up a man's self-esteem. Manliness is vexed, both with itself and the world; it is paradoxical, noble, and idiotic, usually all at once. It is both much more and a lot less than what the reading list at Art of Manliness suggests that it is. Perhaps Brett and Kate might be interested in an alternative reading list. If so, I would be glad suggest an idiosyncratic one of my own fashion.

Posted by: John Kang | May 27, 2014 4:44:36 AM

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