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The lost art of the man book

Having spent one too many crusty nights on the floor of the airport in Salt Lake City, I refuse to travel during the holidays.

Winter travel, in general, fills me with brain-melting levels of anxiety and despair. This is why for the past two weeks, while on my vacation from work, I mostly hung around the Noble Coffee Roasting shop, reading manly man books.

Man books are something of an anomaly in finer coffee shops in and around the Ashland area. When you look around a typical Ashland coffee shop at what is being read, you see at least one Tom Robbins book and maybe a Hunter Thompson or two. Outside that, most of the literature spotted through the espresso steam is about the secrets of healing herbs or astrology.

Which is all fine by me. At least they are reading for-real books and not mindlessly surfing Facebook.

(I watched a middle age woman spend three hours on Facebook the other day at the coffee shop. I cannot fathom what you'd find on that site that would compel you to carve out a three-hour chunk of your day. And I'm a Facebook fan.)

My heart sank after the first week as I conducted an informal experiment of tracking Noble patrons' reading demographics.

The number of women reading for-real books outnumbered men nearly 4 to 1. This did not come as a surprise, as I had just read in the Washington Post (the online version, of course) that the number of young men willing to pick up a book has dropped to 43 percent. Young women readers hover at nearly 60 percent, a slight decline over the past 10 years.

A few years ago, National Public Radio reported that only 57 percent of Americans had read a book in 2002, which is a 4 percent dip over the previous decade.

So our country doesn't read. Fine. At least we haven't bought into the resurgent Rollerblading fad that has taken root in Europe — France in particular. I'll take illiterate over lame.

However, I am a reader of books, particularly manly man books.

I'm not sure when it all started. The first book more than 100 pages I read was about a bunny rabbit that drank the juice out of vegetables. It was called "Bunnicula." Truth be told, it kinda freaked me out.

From there I moved onto the "Baby-sitters Club" series. I am man enough to say I loved those damn books. I still wonder what Stacy, Mary Anne, Dawn and Mallory are up to, now they are grown and surely leading comfortable upper middle class lives in and around Stoneybrook.

Eh, they're probably eating anti-depressants like they're going out of style, working on their second marriages after cashing in on their first divorces and considering recapturing their youth "Sex in the City"-syle with a regimen of Botox and vodka.

The first book over 200 pages I read was "Pet Sematary" by Stephen King. That was in fourth grade. Yeah, maybe a little soon for that one. At least now you can understand the thinking behind this column at times. Blame it on Mr. King, whose new book "Under the Dome" looks pretty good, by the way.

From there I became a steady, though not voracious, reader, until college when I opted for the English major and had no choice but to become a book chewing machine.

It stuck with me. I never go anywhere without something to read. I find it makes waiting at government offices and lulls in city council meetings somewhat more tolerable.

I try to read a bit of everything, but I always find myself drifting back to a manly man book in times of need.

Maybe it's my rebellion over the way marketing demons have all but given up on selling books to male audiences.

Though the "chick-lit" phenomenon is waning, the major publishers still push those titles more so than, say, the new John le Carre novel.

I dig manly man books more so nowadays than in my youth because Hollywood refuses to make balls-out action movies anymore.

My father had Dirty Harry, the Dirty Dozen and the Wild Bunch to satiate his manly needs of blood and testosterone. This probably is why he chose to read mostly hard science fiction and travelogues in his off time.

Today, filmmakers can't make an action movie without casting the lead as some lovable mope who always gets the girl, while doing the politically correct thing in the meantime. Action heroes of the past were mean and nasty and often driven by Darwinian self-interests that included torturing baddies and pocketing the change at the end of the day after the work was done.

This explains why Cormac McCarthy might be my current favorite writer. The dude writes literary manly man books. His "heroes," and that in name only, are often scared, desperate men who aspire to do right, but end up causing so much ruin to those in their orbit that you wonder why they even bothered in the first place.

Another manly man writer is Jonathan Krakauer, made famous by "Into Thin Air" and "Into the Wild," both of which touch on manly themes of reckless adventure and ridiculous self punishment in the name of pride.

I am halfway through his latest book, "Where Men Win Glory," which is about the ill-fated military career of Pat Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinals defensive back who sought transcendence on the battlefields of Afghanistan, but found only bureaucratic malaise and eventually, violent death at the hands of his brothers-in-arms.

Forget about the politics surrounding the Tillman affair for a while and just consider how manly the guy was. He left football to head to a war. It doesn't get more manly than that, folks. Apparently, trying to tackle an Adrian Peterson with a full head of steam wasn't enough for Tillman. He wanted to prove himself against some of the toughest fighters the world has ever known in the mountains that swallowed the Russian army.

You can imagine Tillman 70 years ago, leading a shot-up group of GIs though the hedgerows just beyond Normandy beach with a dog-eared copy of Tolstoy in his field pack.

Over the vacation I finished McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men," which I found ironic as the only people I see reading manly man books are older men. They still can be seen making their way through a slim Louis L'Amour adventure or a Stephen Hunter thriller.

But it's hard to sell manly man books in a world where the ideas like toughness and stoicism are demonized, and Oprah and other media lizards begin an interview with the likes of Cormac McCarthy with the line, "Well, you look just like you do on the back of the cover."

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471; or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.