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Understand Men Better: Six Novels That Can Help

Novels are a great way to get inside a protagonist’s head and understand the world from his point of view. When I asked around, the men in my life identified these six novels as books that spoke to them—as men—and that could help me understand their masculinity better, too.
Let me know what books I missed in the comments.

Want to understand the way men talk about their emotions with each other? Read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

Huck and Jim take a now-famous journey down the Mississippi River trying to win their freedom from Huck’s alcoholic father and Jim’s slaveholder. Along the way, Jim becomes Huck’s best friend—even if Huck doesn’t know how to talk about it.

“It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself…but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither. I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t done that one if I’d a knowed it would make him feel that way.”

Want to understand a man’s need to prove himself? Read The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Bilbo Baggins goes from being a satisfied homebody to a famous adventurer by joining a group of treasure-seeking dwarves. He returns home not only as a burglar, hero, and dragon-slayer, but also as a man (or hobbit) with a sense of pride in himself and what he can accomplish.

“Somehow the killing of this giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark . . . made a great difference to Mr. Baggins. He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach, as he wiped his sword on the grass and put it back into its sheath.”

Want to understand the way teenage boys think? Read Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns.

Fourteen-year-old Will Tweedy attempts to become an adult in the shadow of his domineering but charismatic grandfather in this novel, set in early-twentieth-century Georgia. My husband reports that Will’s struggle to suppress his attraction to a beautiful young woman in his life mirrors the struggles of all pubescent boys to manage their hormones.

“Whenever her hands hit bass and treble chords at the same time, the bodice stretched tight across her bust…I tried not to stare, but I couldn’t exactly help it.”

Want to understand the way men struggle to be good? Read The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene.

An unnamed “whisky priest” comes to terms with his inevitable martyrdom in revolutionary Mexico. The priest can never quite overcome his weaknesses—or admit to himself his inner strength and goodness.

The lieutenant said in a tone of fury: “Well, you’re going to be a martyr—you’ve got that satisfaction.” “Oh, no. Martyrs are not like me. They don’t think all the time—if I had drunk more brandy I shouldn’t be so afraid.”

Want to understand the sorts of anxiety some men feel about their masculinity? Read The Sun Also Risesby Ernest Hemingway.

Jake Barnes fought bravely in World War One, but it wasn’t enough to prove his masculinity. He now works as an aimless journalist in Paris, unable to maintain a relationship with Brett, the woman he loves, because of an old war wound. In fact, with her short haircut and masculine manners, Brett seems more man that any of the male characters in the book.

“I can’t stand it to think my life is going so fast and I’m not really living it.”

“Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters.”

Finally, want to understand the way men think about women? Read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

Tolstoy has won more than a century’s-worth of acclaim for his poignant depiction of his adulterous heroine in nineteenth-century Russia. But even if Tolstoy understood women, his characters certainly don’t. Anna’s husband and lover and the secondary protagonist, Constantine Levin, all scratch their heads at the reasonable behavior of the women in their lives.

“[Levin] was unaware of the feeling of change she was going through after her life at home…She herself had no idea of how it was or why, but managing the house attracted her irresistibly.”

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