Real men read real books; ebook or hardcover doesn’t really matter, but gentleman savor, and learn from, the complexity that can only be found in a book, preferably an epic novel. Have an open mind and consider older books; the Victorian age was a gold mine for great books by Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, Gaskell, Austen and others. Don’t be put off by the fact that these may be required reading in English lit classes; they’re easy to read and unlike, say, Shakespeare, the English language has not really changed all that much in the last few hundred years – and neither have the essential issues of manhood; like doing the right thing in the face of temptation to do the easy thing.
While many things a man is often forced to keep up with, like technology, financial markets, a woman’s disposition, may change at dizzying speeds, its comforting that the values that make a man good or great – honesty, integrity, hard work – have changed little if at all over time. If there is one trait more than any other than defines the manly man, it is the ability and willingness to act according to one’s convictions when those convictions are strongly opposed by the crowd, peer pressure, or conventional wisdom. To be a real man is to think for oneself, and to act on those thoughts. And the classics can teach this story just as well as any modern author.
Don’t confuse manly media for porn, sports, or news, which we cover elsewhere, and which can all be lumped within the general category of superficial and unsatisfying distractions which the world throws at men. Car racing, truck demolitions, endless porn, athlete scandals, talking heads; this is the flotsam and jetsam of the entertainment world. Part of being a man is putting all that distraction aside – not easy as it seems to be everywhere – and focusing on the important themes of life. Having the mental discipline to ignore the trivia and focus on the truly important is one of the most important skills a man can develop.
It may take you 20 or 40 hours to read a great book, but it could well change your life, and provide inspiration for years. A great book may be something you can pass along to your son – or daughter. You’re probably not going to be passing the favorites list from your online porn collection along to your kids.
Books are about big ideas; an idea of what the world could, and should, be. In an increasingly feminized, politically correct world, its sometimes hard to find role models of manly behavior, but Howard Roark, Mr. Darcy, and John Blackthorne should help. It’s interesting that many of the best male heroes have been created by women; Ayn Rand, Jane Austen, and Jane Gaskell, just to name a few. Only a male can be a manly man, but either intelligent, creative men and women can imagine what it takes to be a good man. By no means is a male author to be preferred over a female solely on the basis of gender.
Although the list below contains many classics, it’s not a list you’ll find from critics, whose idea of manly adventuresome behavior is adding a second Splenda to their lattes while sitting in a Weight Watchers support group. The favorite novel of this group is Proust’s “A Remembrance of Things Past”, during which the author spends the first 100 pages discussing his mother. As much as we love mom, it’s something that can best be covered, if at all, in a paragraph or two.
Pride and Prejudice – the amazing novel by Jane Austen, or the equally riveting A&E version of the movie (with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle). The dialogue is a lesson in how to learn the English language, and the romance between Mr. Darby and Elizabeth Bennett is a tutorial in how a gentleman courts a lady, makes a few blunders along the way, and, in the end, gets it perfectly right. Mr. Darby, while standoffish to those around him, is generous to those close to him, and much admired by his servants, relatives, and good friends. Elizabeth Bennett uses wit, ridicule, and sharp dialogue, and, most of all, her charm and ebuillent nature, to soften Mr. Darcy’s rough edges. Austen’s other novels, like Sense and Sensibility and Emma, though focused on women, show the difference between infatuation and genuine affection – a lesson just as relevant for men as for women.
The FoutainHead by Ayn Rand – Why is it that some of the best work on manly behavior comes from women? Perhaps because they know what kind of man they’re dreaming of. Rand’s heroes are not for the faint of heart, and involve more violent idea of sexuality than I care for, but Howard Roark, the hero of the FountainHead, exemplifies the kind of independent thinking, and resolute action, that is the true mark of a man. Her other classic, Atlas Shrugged, is also an epic drama well worth the lengthy read. In Rand’s world, the difference between good and evil is quite clear cut, and the villains, like Ellsworth Toohey, are just as instructive as the heroes. Perhaps best of all, Rand shows how defiant and true to himself a man can be without using the contexts of war, or crime, or violence – the heroes are architects, or businessmen, or philosophers, or artists – men of great intellect, who you’ll never call nerds.
Shogun by James Clavell– Perhaps the greatest adventure novelist of modern times, Clavell’s classic Shogun is set in Japan of the 1600s, in the world of Bushido; the battle between the European seafaring hero, Blackthorne, and the Japanese who control his fate show very contrasting ideas as to what it means to be honorable, the relationship between men and women, and how a man defines himself. All this in a fascinating, swashbuckling way with a hero worth emulating, and a heroine, Mariko, who both defines femininity and also knows how to handle a sword and a dagger. A couple hundred years later we find the descendants of these characters in Tai-Pan, and Dirk Struan as great model for the ambitious man full of life, whose life involves duplicity, concubines, greed, and honor.
Bleak House and David Copperfield – Like your gentleman kinder and gentler? Dickens is the author for you. His stories show the classic gentleman – one who is kind and considerate towards women, thoughtful of those around him, especially the less fortunate, and willing to go to great lengths to do the right thing. These stories were written in the 1850s but, like Jane Austen, because the themes they present are universal, they haven’t aged a bit. The women are a big too angelic for my tastes, but this is made up for my truly fascinating villains.
The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope – In an age of big money swindles, then and now, there are those who refuse to play along, wanting money only if can be earned in an honorable way. Two men in this novel, both of them honorable but detesting each other, pursue the same woman.
Vanity Fair – How is it possible to live well on nothing a year? This classic by Thackeray is all about ability to meet one’s commitments, whether those obligations are financial or marital. Like many of the great Victorian era novels, it focuses on the difference between appearance and reality, and the degree to which people will be duped by the appearance of wealth, how men are duped by the appearance of women, and how the aristocracy and fashionable set fools the rest of the world into thinking that the veneer represents substance.
East and West by Jane Gaskell
We’ll throw in a couple of our own books as well, not that they are in the same league as those above, which they most certainly are not, but they exemplify the manly values:
Tragedy to Triumph: 100 Amazing and Inspiring Comebacks – Why do I like comeback stories so much? Because they exemplify the essence of manhood – to deal with adversity without complaint, to continue doing your best, and, if possible, to eventually overcome and attain victory with humility and gusto.
Favela: the graphic novel. It may look like a comic book, but it tells the story of a man’s man. Starting a penniless shoeshine boy in the ghettos of Sao Paulo, he rose to wealth and power through a combination of luck, brilliance, violence, daring and street smarts. While he was ruthless to his enemies, Favela never broke his word or violated the manly code of conduct.