Let me guess–you’re wondering why I would want to read a book telling me about what it’s like to be a man? That’s a good question, and to be honest, I don’t really know. I guess it has something to do with the fact that I love The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by the same author, as well as The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Also, can you believe that cover art? Come on, I’m a total sucker for packaging. I couldn’t resist.
That, and when I was in the library perusing the non-fiction section, I opened the book and my eyes fell to this paragraph:
“This is an essential element of this business of being a man: to flood everyone around you in a great, radiant arc of bullshit, one whose source and object of greatest intensity is yourself. To behave as if you have everything firmly under control even when you have just sailed your boat over the falls. ‘To keep your head,’ wrote Rudyard Kipling in his classic poem ‘If,’ which articulated the code of high-Victorian masculinity in whose fragmentary shadow American men still come of age, ‘when all about you are losing theirs’; but in reality, the trick of being a man is to give the appearance of keeping your head when, deep inside, the truest part of you is crying out, Oh, shit!”
I immediately checked it out, brought it home and inhaled it. It was like having a little tiny insight into the psyche of a man–but not in silly little cliche ways, in ways that actually made sense to me. Things that I’ve never understood about the men that I know suddenly made a lot more sense when viewed through the eyes of Michael Chabon. (His ability to craft such great sentences doesn’t hurt; he’s a master of complicated punctuation.)
The whole book is a series of short essays that all have to do with coming of age, learning what it means to be a man, falling in love, getting married, getting divorced, and being a father. From difficult moments like the realization that divorcing his first wife will also mean losing a relationship with his father-in-law, to short interludes about drawing superheroes with his own kids, the book as a whole leaves you with a compelling view of the journey into full-fledged manhood.
In my favorite essay, Chabon talks about installing a towel rack in his bathroom. He (proudly) has all the proper tools, and sets about assembling the labeled pieces and affixing the rack to the wall. As he says himself, “I had no reason to believe, no evidence from prior experience of myself, physics, or life itself, that I knew how or would be able to pull off the job. In fact, I had encountered a certain amount of tragedy in my dealings with molly bolts over the years.” However, soon enough, two towels hung securely from the rack. After I read this essay, I made Jason listen while I read it out loud to him. When I finished, I asked him if he knew what he was doing when he approached a project like a new towel rack. (He always acts like he does, and I have always assumed that he did.) He immediately said, “No way, I almost always have no idea what I’m doing. But, I have to make it look like I do.”
As a woman, this book was full of little lessons for me. I imagine that for a man, it would probably be more relatable, but I think I liked it best from an outsider’s perspective. It was like reading investigative journalism. Grab a copy if you have the chance!
The list so far:
9. Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon