Illustrations by Isabel Hamdan
There are few places in our culture where we need more male influence, more male voices receiving attention. In film direction? Nope. On Home Depot’s Board of Directors? Nah. In Congress? Definitely not. But like a clickbait headline from 2012, the place where we need more men just might shock you.
For centuries, women have gathered together to discuss their lives and politics, read, swap gossip, self-actualize and organize, and everything in between. Book clubs were—and continue to be—an important place for women to gather and connect. Historically, women were systematically shut out of institutions that would allow them public power and influence, so they gathered in homes, places of worship, and salons in order to connect and exert agency over their lives. Today, celebrity women have made their mark in the world of book clubs; it’s time for a male celebrity to enter the market. The Andrew Luck Book Club, founded by the former NFL Colts quarterback in 2016, is the sole male-led celebrity book club, and there’s space on the field. Celeb men should get in on this underserved market so that they can continue to expand the scope of the kinds of things boys and men like to do. This is about more than selling books or building a brand, it’s about bucking the heteronormative patriarchy.
To properly address the dude gap in celebrity book clubs, we first have to discuss how women built the infrastructure for book clubs to thrive. One of the earliest “book clubs” was Anne Hutchinson’s in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. After she and her family arrived in 1634, she began to host women’s Bible study where they discussed the Bible (the original best-seller), as well as the minister’s sermons. Eventually, the group welcomed men, and this theological gabfest got too big for the Puritan leadership’s liking. Hutchinson and her family were banished to Rhode Island. Around this time and across the pond, salons were particularly popular in France, allowing women to get together to discuss art, politics, and gossip. In the early 19th century, women’s abolitionist groups used book clubs to educate themselves about slavery and systematic dehumanization, and to organize resistance. This paved the way for the consciousness-raising groups in the 1960s and 70s, and later, to “self-improvement through reading” facilitated by Oprah and a few bottles of dry red.
Today, women remain more likely than men to be part of a book club and, according to a Pew Research study in 2016, about 13 percent are more likely to have read a book in the past 12 months when compared to men. Women self-report reading more than men on the whole, but overwhelmingly read more fiction than men.
There are many hypotheses about why this “fiction gap” exists. Gender socialization begins at birth, according to Cordelia Fine, author of Delusions of Gender: How our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference. “Babies are button-nosed little learning machines,” who pick up cues from adults early in life. They pick up even subtle differences in facial expressions and the way adults say their names (perhaps softer and higher voices when saying a girl’s name, firmer for a boy’s). We learn gender expectations, however slight and unconscious, from those around us from the moment we are born, and by age three, children can recognize differences between boys and girls. Interactions with peers are particularly important as children develop their own gender identity and understand what is “acceptable” and “unacceptable” gender behavior. Some studies suggest that boys may be more susceptible to peer pressure to reject activities viewed as “girly” at a young age, and with reading often being coded as a feminine activity, they may steer away from books and toward video games or the playing field.
This rhetoric permeates our thinking. On the March 7th episode of Saturday Night Live, “Weekend Update” co-host Michael Che joked: “A new study claims that negative gender stereotypes keep boys from reading. And I was going to read more on this study, but what am I, gay?” Che chuckled and shook his head at the end of his joke and the live studio audience gave it a hearty laugh.
There are, of course, boys who love to read and do so with brio, but on the whole, boys are not reading much and do not have celebrity role models (or dads) encouraging them to read. Women are socialized to have more emotional range and to be more empathetic than men. Reading—and fiction particularly—calls for patience and the ability to feel what the characters are feeling in order to remain interested. Girls are socialized to be (or at least fake being) interested in how others feel, whereas boys are socialized to own their opinions and be decisive. Broader definitions of what boys like and how they spend their time is not something which male celebrity book clubs alone can change, but having prominent male figures reading, discussing, and creating community around all kinds of books is one way to help. Andrew Luck knows this firsthand.
The Andrew Luck Book Club breaks the celebrity book club mold in two big ways: it’s hosted by a man and he aims to engage both older and younger readers. Andrew Luck is an athlete-celebrity. And let’s be clear here, the order there is important. He has the macho cred of being a (very recently) former NFL quarterback and successful college player, which may make his interest in reading more palatable to stereotypically masculine standards. He often uses sports and sports terminology to connect to his reading community, which makes sense given his background, but it’s strategic too. His book club’s motto is “building a team through reading,” and he does that every month with two picks: one for kids, called “rookies,” and one for adults, called “veterans.” He can use sports as a first point to draw in readers who might not normally gravitate toward reading books.
Luck gained a reputation for bringing books to practice and to games, and for making recommendations to his teammates. He was called the “unofficial librarian” of the NFL, and his mom encouraged him to begin a book club to share his love of reading even further. He kicked off the book club in 2016, beginning with Maniac Magee (a childhood favorite, as many of his rookie recommendations are) and The Boys in the Boat (a pick he’d previously read but wanted to revisit). In an interview posted on the Colts’ official site, he said, “I love a good story. It’s fiction, it’s non-fiction…like anybody, I think I enjoy being entertained.” He went on, “I’ve loved reading; it’s always been a part of my life. And hopefully I can encourage some kids and adults that don’t read as much to pick up a book. And if you do read, more power to you.” Luck’s Book Club has the broad goal of getting people to read—no matter if they’re younger, older, frequent readers or reluctant to open a book. Taking a look at his past picks, Luck recommends a diverse mix of books for his veterans, mainly drawing on what he’s currently reading and titles he thinks “may encourage people who wouldn’t read, to read and pick it,” as he told CBS in 2018. His eclectic archive of titles ranges in age and genre: Quantum Physics for Babies (Chris Ferrie) sits a few lines above Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup (John Carreyrou).
Famous men, and particularly those in stereotypically masculine jobs–athlete, action movie star, what have you–should use their clout to subvert prominent narratives about boys and men. They could capitalize on different aspects of their personalities and their lives: the Rock is a hulking actor and the tender father of three daughters, LeBron James cares deeply about educational equality and his performance on the court, Harry Styles loves wearing nail polish and The Rolling Stones. Along with endorsing the latest fitness craze or video game, they should encourage their fans to read alongside them. Luck’s book club was spurred by his personal love of reading and that’s amazing. There have to be other male celebrities who love reading and who would take up the call to resocialize us and show us that boys can love reading too. If there are male celebrities who don’t really love reading, but want to give more boys access to and confidence in reading, they can still be part of this too. They can capitalize on the trend for the social good as well as their personal brand, and like Reese Witherspoon, they might even find projects they want to produce for TV or film. Being encouraged to read by Jonah Hill or Jordan Peele may help a young reader cultivate a patience for–and hopefully a love of–reading. A few more famous male role models could really make an impact on a generation of young boys and men.
The next generation is preparing to lead us into a future where the gap between what’s considered “masculine” and “feminine” continues to close. Gen Z celebrities continue to show us how antiquated gender stereotypes are and how inclusivity fosters creativity and joy. Celebs like Timothée Chalamet, Lil Nas X, Bad Bunny, Ryan Jamall Swain, and so many others are the next generation of celebrity influencers. They may be hosting book clubs that we haven’t even imagined yet. (Adam Martinez, will you start a TikTok book club?!) Until Gen Z is ready to take up the book club mantle, current celebrity men should step up and start a book club. Show boys and men that it’s normal, good, and fun to read. They should all get in the game with Andrew Luck.