By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
When Ian McEwan gave away 30 novels to passers-by in a park, every woman accepted but only one man did. What happens when we do the same?
Thomas Stulnn's enthusiasm wasn't shared by all the men
"Are you serious? What's the catch?"
It's an understandable response to being offered something for free.
But setting suspicion aside - and some people do need convincing that the only small print is on the flyleaf - giving away books in a west London street is highly recommended.
Every third person, on average, stops to listen and to browse, and most walk away with a pleasant surprise in their hand.
First to be snapped up is Harry Potter, by a man who wants to learn English.
That still leaves many illustrious names in the box, such as Twain, McEwan, Byatt, Eliot, Bainbridge and Pullman. But one bookworm is unimpressed.
Leafing quickly through the box, the woman says: "I would help you, but there's nothing there for me."
AUTHORS IN OUR BOX
Beryl Bainbridge, Philip Pullman, Catherine Cookson,
John Grisham, Joanna Trollope, Lorna Sage, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes,
Antonia Byatt, George Eliot, Mark Twain, Alex Garland, Penelope Lively, JK Rowling, Roddy Doyle, Frederick Forsyth, Tony Parsons, Alan Hollinghurst, Douglas Adams, Ruth Rendell
Not a ringing endorsement of what I'd bought for £14 (of my own money) at a charity shop. But half an hour later, the 20 novels are gone - 12 to women and eight to men, although men were much more likely to turn down the offer.
A typical male response is "Nah, you're alright mate. Thanks." Or, more honestly: "I don't really read that much so it would be better if someone else had it."
McEwan said his findings echoed previous theories that the novel better meets women's innate skills in emotional understanding.
And Wendy Hamilton, who takes away McEwan's Enduring Love, makes a similar argument.
"Men don't open up in order to try and understand other people," she says. "Reading gets me into the minds of other people and how people feel, so I can understand their situation, even if I'm not in it.
"Reading increases knowledge, understanding and wisdom."
Abi Jalloh plumps for AS Byatt
Two books produced from the handbag of Jill McPhail, 45, is evidence of her enthusiasm, but she doesn't corner the bookcase in her household. Her husband, although not a fan of novels, likes a historical read.
Another bonus point for the men is earned by actor Tom Skitt, 22, who gives the box a thorough ransacking and settles for George Eliot. Mr Skitt, a big Douglas Adams fan (he's 10 minutes late for that one, but he's read them all anyway), thinks there's some truth in the generalisation that men don't read as many novels.
"It's a stereotype but for a reason, and women do tend to read more," he says. "My mum loved the Catherine Cookson-type stuff but I've never considered picking it up myself."
Poor Catherine is proving quite tricky to shift, until Amir Rathmani, 42, snaps it up to bring the experiment to an end. "I don't have time to read but I'll take one for my wife," he says. "Every day I'm working here until 9.30pm."
Overall a 60:40 split on the street, then, but is this reflected in bookshops?
Although women do read more overall, it's not as simple as saying men don't like novels, they just like different ones from women, says Ghlas Ferguson, manager of Waterstones in Reading.
Another happy punter
"Dan Brown readers are largely men because they like fantasy and action," he says. "Women tend to go for a reading experience which is emotive and with a broader range, so it might have action but with a wider perspective, like more family-orientated."
Generally, men are more likely to go for Chris Ryan, Andy McNab or true crime novels, whereas women prefer books with emotion, like the award-winning The History of Tractors in Ukrainian, he says.
And probably reflecting their attitudes to shopping, women like to browse books and men spend very little time buying them. At Christmas, Mr Ferguson notes, some even go straight to the counter and ask: "Have you got a book for my wife?"
Not me I love reading, and would read my wife under the table! I can read almost anything, though I admit to sticking mostly to science, science-fiction and technology (fiction or non-fiction) which are my favourite subjects. I have around a dozen reads queuing up to be read, but all will be cleared aside when Peter F Hamilton's new book comes out early next month - Judas Unchained; cant wait! Would I accept a free book from someone in the street? If they looked respectable, probably yes!
Colin S, Birmingham, UK
Free books? Of course I'd accept them, where can I get some? I adore book, I devour them. I don't understand why there seems to be this male bias to Andy McNab and Chris Ryan. I love the novels of Jeanette Winterson, Garth Nix, Phillip Pullman and Italo Calvino. Does that make me less a man? Hope not.
Ben Whitehouse, UK
I read all the time. I'd have jumped at the offer of a free book, but men are definitely different or indifferent to books. I once asked my husband for a particular book for Christmas. Bur he actually bought me a book I didn't really want because he said there were more pages in it and therefore it was better value for money.
Ann, Wilts UK
maybe men are to self concerned to accept freebies, they think accepting something for free might make the opposite sex see differently of them.
james corbyn, australia
Of course men read, but not the artsy or modern classic stuff in the giveaway. So the experiment is flawed, if it had been sporting hero's biography's you would see a marked shift in the split, say 90/10 in favour of men.
Stephen Henderson, UK
I never look a gift horse in the mouth...I'd accept a free book...even if I don't read it for months or years...if its mills and boon or sci-fi I'd pass it on to a charity! I've recently read a collection of Hemingway short stories and a book by Andrew Field about The Earl of Oxford...these were lent to me by a friend. However I haven't bought a book for years...new books are a rip-off!
len williams, england
I find it sad that the novel is dying out as far as men are concerned. I find it incredibly hard to find a satisfying novel nowadays, there are too many 'Airport novels' like Dan Brown, Andy McNab and the like which are easy enough to read but intellectually not very demanding. I find that I have to read SF or the classics to find well thought out challenging reading that rewards the readers input with engaging characters, solid plots and vivid writing. Writers such as Ian McEwan, China Mieville, Greg Bear, Kim Stanley Robinson and the like. I have taken a chance on a great many authors to feel disappointed upon finishing the book. If someone gave me a free book I'd jump at the chance of trying a new author without the financial risk. Charity shops are great for this form of experimental reading, esp when a book will regularly cost £7 nowadays.
Simon oxlade, UK
In my experience, this type of research is great for proving whatever you want. Personally, I might conclude that women are more likely to take gifts from strangers (something which my Mum told me not to do).
Alternatively, I might conclude that men read more - why take a copy of book when you already have it?
My preference is that women are more likely to take freebies from men. Try the experiment with a woman handing out the books and see what happens!
Colin Main, UK
By waving a box full of random books in the faces of passers by you are appealing to their sense of curiosity. The ratio of women to men could be something to do with the fact that women are more willing to be stopped in the street because they are curious about what is on offer, whereas men in general are less likely to be side tracked. I think this curiosity is same reason why women are more likely to go for novels that have involved characters and preferably a bit of emotional tugging at the heart strings! So the type of book on offer probably influenced the results too.
My boyfriend and I love trawling charity shops for a good read, and read all of each others books. Except that he wont touch anything about ladies in their 20s/30s that just can't find a bloke -fair enough!
Flo , South Shields, UK
I agree with the comments listed above and working in the (very much women-orientated)book publishing sector myself, it does seem that women do have a poignant relationship with books. However, I know lots of men that read novels and the like so I don't think it's fair to overly generalise. There is however the argument that it takes a certain amount of patience and reflection when reading some of the heftier novels, such as McEwan or the classics. In an era where computer games, monthly mags, TV and the like are so prevalent and readily available to entertain us, there isn't the necessity or the encouragement to get to know books in the same way that we used to. Where TV is a 'sit-back' exercise, books are a 'sit-up' one.
Jenny Phillips, UK
Doesn't this experiment just prove that men are in general more suspicious of being given something 'free' on the street, rather than illustrate any great divide in reading habits? If you tried giving away cash you may end up with the same breakdown.
As someone who (just) scrapes a living selling second-hand books I can't say I'm very keen on the idea of you giving books away!
I would say that 75% plus of the shop's turnover comes from men, but about 75% of our sales of novels are to women.
I also regularly provide recycled carrier bags so that men can smuggle the books home without "her indoors" (or variations on the theme) spotting them, and this is usually down to considerations of bookshelf space, so there may be factors other than "increasing knowledge and wisdom" at work.
Richard James, UK
How come things like that never happen to me... It would probably make my day !
Lamis Khalilova, Prague
Dan Brown, Andy McNab and Chris Ryan? Sheesh, I wouldn't touch any of them with a 10 foot bargepole. I wouldn't buy anything by Chris Ryan out of principle and the DaVinci code was one of the worst books I've ever had the misfortune to read, both in style and substance.
I'm currently carrying Snow Crash and the Baroque Trilogy by Neal Stephenson and Homer's The Iliad in my bag to while away the bus journey home.
If stopped in the same way, I would take the line that I have enough money to buy my own and wouldn't want to take away someone else's chance of a 'free' book. I think this shows more that a man has a need to earn something, but a woman is more attuned to receiving things!
Richard Beed, England
Thanks for your comments. The debate is now closed.