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Wednesday, October 3, 2007Is It True Women Read More Than Men?
A couple of years ago, British author Ian McEwan conducted an admittedly unscientific experiment. He and his son waded into the lunch-time crowds at a London park and began handing out free books. Within a few minutes, they had given away 30 novels.
Nearly all of the takers were women, who were "eager and grateful" for the freebies while the men "frowned in suspicion, or distaste." The inevitable conclusion, wrote McEwan in The Guardian newspaper: "When women stop reading, the novel will be dead."
McEwan's prognosis is surely hyperbole, but only slightly. Surveys consistently find that women read more books than men, especially fiction. Explanations abound, from the biological differences between the male and female brains, to the way that boys and girls are introduced to reading at a young age.
One thing is certain: Americans—of either gender—are reading fewer books today than in the past. A poll released last month by The Associated Press and Ipsos, a market-research firm, found that the typical American read only four books last year, and one in four adults read no books at all.
A National Endowment for the Arts report found that only 57 percent of Americans had read a book in 2002 a four percentage-point drop in a decade. Book sales have been flat in recent years and are expected to stay that way for the foreseeable future.
Among avid readers surveyed by the AP, the typical woman read nine books in a year, compared with only five for men. Women read more than men in all categories except for history and biography.
Hemingway as 'Chick-Lit'
When it comes to fiction, the gender gap is at its widest. Men account for only 20 percent of the fiction market, according to surveys conducted in the U.S., Canada and Britain.
By this measure, "chick-lit" would have to include Hemingway and nearly every other novel, observes Lakshmi Chaudhry in the magazine In These Times. "Unlike the gods of the literary establishment who remain predominately male—both as writers and critics—their humble readers are overwhelmingly female."
Book groups consist almost entirely of women, and the spate of new literary blogs are also populated mainly by women. The Associated Press study stirred a small buzz among some of those bloggers.
"I've read at least 100 books in the past year. Seriously. Probably more like 150 to 200," a user named Phyllis wrote on the literary blog Trashionista. "My husband? I'm guessing zero, unless you count picture books and comic books he has read to the kids."
"We see it every time in our store," says Carla Cohen, owner of the Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C. "Women head straight for the fiction section and men head for nonfiction."
"I know that we certainly have more women than men customers," concurs Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books, an independent bookstore in the Miami area. "But I don't have any wisdom about why that is."
Kaplan speculates that women may be buying books for men, but he concedes that could be simply wishful thinking.
It's All in Your Head
Theories attempting to explain the "fiction gap" abound. Cognitive psychologists have found that women are more empathetic than men, and possess a greater emotional range—traits that make fiction more appealing to them.
Some experts see the genesis of the "fiction gap" in early childhood. At a young age, girls can sit still for much longer periods of time than boys, says Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain.
"Girls have an easier time with reading or written work, and it's not a stretch to extrapolate [that] to adult life," Brizendine says. Indeed, adult women talk more in social settings and use more words than men, she says.
Another theory focuses on "mirror neurons." Located behind the eyebrows, these neurons are activated both when we initiate actions and when we watch those same actions in others. Mirror neurons explain why we recoil when seeing others in pain, or salivate when we see other people eating a gourmet meal. Neuroscientists believe that mirror neurons hold the biological key to empathy.
The research is still in its early stages, but some studies have found that women have more sensitive mirror neurons than men. That might explain why women are drawn to works of fiction, which by definition require the reader to empathize with characters.
"Reading requires incredible patience, and the ability to 'feel into' the characters. That is something women are both more interested in and also better at than men," says Brizendine.
Rekindling the Reading Magic
There are exceptions to the fiction gap. More boys than girls have read The Harry Potter series, according to its U.S. publisher, Scholastic. What's more, Harry Potter made more of an impact on boys' reading habits. Sixty-one percent agreed with the statement "I didn't read books for fun before reading Harry Potter," compared with 41 percent of girls.
For publishers and booksellers, that offers a ray of hope—not only that the fiction gap might not be so insurmountable after all, but also that another, more worrisome gap might also be closing: the age gap. Young people, in general, read less than older people, and that does not bode well for books and the people who love them.
"What all of us are wondering is what will happen with this new generation that doesn't read much," says bookstore owner Carla Cohen. "What happens when they grow up?"
Police are on the trail of a shadowy figure who has been dumping giant carved stone heads on village doorsteps at dead of night.
Each of the foot-high carved stones had a hand-written rhyme taped to it
The man has left at least 13 at locations 100 miles apart in Yorkshire at Goathland, near Whitby; Kilburn, near Thirsk; Arthington, outside Leeds, and a village near Selby.
But another delivery of three heads outside a village post office could solve the mystery, police hope. The mystery man was captured on CCTV in Braithwell, near Rotherham.
First reports of the discarded heads emerged last week when Fiona Gould, who runs the Forresters Arms hotel in Kilburn, found one on her patio. Five more were discovered in other parts of the village.
She said: "Some people think it's a curse - but we have no idea who we might have offended. One woman claims there's a link to werewolves."
Each of the foot-high stones had the hand-written rhyme Twinkle, twinkle, like a star. Does love flourish from afar? taped to it.
There was also a symbol on the reverse similar to the religious "chi-rho" sign with letters added which also could spell the word "paradox
Chinese farmers cultivated rice along the eastern coast as far back as 7,700 years ago and used fire and flood control measures to manage their fields, researchers said, citing new evidence.
In a letter published in Nature late last week, geographers in Britain and China described how they found artifacts -- bone, bamboo and wooden tools used for foraging and cultivation -- and high concentrations of charcoal in Kuahuqiao, a freshwater marsh about 200 km southwest of Shanghai.
"About 7,700 years ago, people started to burn woody crops and there's a very high concentration of charcoal there and a decline of woody tree pollen," said Zong Yongqiang of Durham University in the United Kingdom.
"These two give us a very clear indication that people used fire to open the site for settlement and cultivation. It wasn't just one burn but over several decades to maintain the ground for rice cultivation ... This could be the earliest paddy cultivation in the world," Zong told Reuters by telephone.
"They used animal bones as spades, for example, the shoulder blades of pigs (which have a) triangular shape."
Other archaeologists found wood pilings which they believe were used as supports in the marshy ground to erect platforms for huts for the farmers and their families.
These early farmers were also able to protect their paddy fields from floodwaters in the low-lying coastal area, at a time when they were constantly threatened by rising sea levels.
"When we look at the diatoms (species of green algae that thrive in sea water), salinity was kept very low in the background of rising sea levels. That gave us another suggestion that the humans somehow managed to have very primitive ways of blocking seawater during flooding," Zong said.
But the area was suddenly abandoned about 7,500 years ago, again evident from diatoms dating from that time.
"You can see an abrupt rise in marine and brackish water diatoms, which means that up to a certain point, the people couldn't maintain the paddy fields because sea water levels kept rising and they overwhelmed the sites," Zong said.
"They abandoned the sites, which they occupied for 200 years, and moved on to other sites, with similar marshy conditions," he said, referring to Hemudu, 120 km east of Kuahuqiao, or Majiabang, which lies in between Shanghai and Kuahuqiao.
Again, the researchers secured evidence showing paddy cultivation in Hemudu and Majiabang began about 7,000 years ago.
The researchers are now setting their sights on Taihu lake, which lies about 150 km north of Kuahuqiao.
"Between 6,000-4,000 years ago, the community was so vibrant, they had jade, ceramic ware and rice production was so high. Then 4,000 years ago, this community just disappeared," Zong said.
"Is it because of the sea level rising, or climate cooling? Was weather so cold that their harvests were harmed?"
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said on Tuesday if elected president he would pursue a global ban on nuclear weapons as he sought to pick up ground on his front-running rival, Hillary Clinton.
"Here's what I'll say as president: America seeks a world in which there are no nuclear weapons," Obama said.
Obama marked the five-year anniversary of a speech he gave as a U.S. Senate candidate outlining his opposition to the Iraq war, noting it came just 10 days before his top rival for the party nomination, New York Sen. Clinton, voted to back the invasion of Iraq.
"Let's be clear: without that vote, there would be no war," Obama told DePaul University students. "This is not just a matter of debating the past. It's about who has the best judgment to make the critical decisions of the future."
Obama, renewing his argument with Clinton that she represents conventional thinking in Washington, said new thinking is needed over U.S. nuclear policies that he said were mired in a Cold War mentality.
He said he would not pursue unilateral disarmament of nuclear weapons.
"We'll work with Russia to take U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles off hair-trigger alert. We'll start by seeking a global ban on the production of fissile material for weapons. And we'll set a goal to expand the U.S.-Russian ban on intermediate-range missiles so that the agreement is global," Obama said.
The rival Democratic presidential campaign of John Edwards accused Obama of copying one of the former North Carolina senator's ideas.
"If you need any more proof that John Edwards is shaping the race for the Democratic nomination, you don't need to look any further than Senator Obama, who has followed Edwards' lead on health care, poverty, and today, eliminating nuclear weapons," said Edwards spokeswoman Colleen Murray.
The first-term senator from Illinois said critics -- actually it was Clinton -- called him "naive and irresponsible" when he said he would negotiate with the leaders of hostile nations like Iran and Cuba.
And he said he was "lectured" for saying he would launch an attack on Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. And it was called a "gaffe" when he ruled out using nuclear weapons on terrorist training camps.
On each, he defended his stance.
"We're not going to be safe in a world of unconventional threats with the same old conventional thinking that got us into Iraq," he said.
In a Democratic debate in New Hampshire last week among the party's candidates for the November 2008 election, leading contenders Clinton, Obama and Edwards could not commit to having all U.S. troops out of Iraq by 2013, when their prospective first term as president would end.
Obama said, as president, the only troops remaining in Iraq after a 16-month drawdown would be there to protect U.S. forces and diplomats and to stage counter-terrorism strikes.