Yesterday, a suit-clad man in his late 50s came up to the circulation desk at the library where I work with a stack of books to check out.
They were all romances.
As he handed me his library card, I waited for the disclaimer. Sure enough, he announced, "These aren't for me. They're for my wife."
"A likely story," I joked. "Don't worry, there's nothing wrong with a dude enjoying the occasional bodice-ripper."
"No, really," he insisted, reddening. "She's home with the flu! She sent me to the library with a reading list!"
"It's OK," I said, laughing, "I believe you."
Do men ever check out romances for themselves? In over a decade of library work, I've never seen it happen. Although if straight men did read romances, they might learn a few things.
Apparently, they'd rather not.
As a feminist, I'm all in favor of avoiding gender stereotyping. Still, working in a public library has demolished any "Free to be You and Me" notion I might have had about guys and gals being just the same. When our patrons bring their books to the circulation desk for check out, there are few surprises.
Battle Secrets of World War II? It's a dude.
I Kissed An Earl? It's a lady.
Both genders do read literary fiction, mysteries and travel books. Nobody of either gender reads poetry anymore.
And everyone seems to love Stephen King.
But for a certain kind of book, there's absolutely no crossover. No man has ever checked out Entwined Together without a disclaimer. And when a woman checks out Take, Burn or Destroy: A Novel of Naval Adventure, she'll invariably remark "This is for my husband."
Is no woman curious enough about the appeal of naval adventure to fictionally partake?
Not in my library.
Although if she did, she might learn something.
But for our women readers, a book with "naval adventure" in the title is dead in the water. Nor will their husbands or boyfriends go for anything with a half-clad couple embracing on the cover, or the words "love," "desire," or "passion" in the title.
Unless it's "love of mayhem" or "passion for tanks, battles and explosions."
When a local politician put out a call last year for books to send to our front-line troops, Deb and I went through the books on our sale table for titles that would appeal to what we assumed was a group of almost entirely young guys.
Nelson's Fighting Cocks? (Yes, the book really exists.)
"That's a winner!"
We ended up with a selection of macho titles and thrillers, some literary fiction, two Paul Monette classics for the out-and-proud and (optimistically) a poetry collection.
But we left Debbie Macomber and Jennifer Crusie on the table.
A library patron who overheard us took us to task. "Don't censor the books you send the troops because of your own gender bias," she protested.
"I'm a feminist too," I told her. "But I'm also a realist. Trust me -- sending chick lit to the troops would be a colossal waste of time and postage."
"But if only..."
"We understand your concern, " Deb cut in. "But we're trained professionals here. Just let us do our job?"
We sent a bunch of manly titles to the troops and felt just fine about it. If there's a soldier out there who was longing to kick back after a hard day's fighting with a copy of The Viscount Who Loved Me, all I can say is "I'm sorry."
Will things ever change? They're marketing Easy Bake Ovens to little boys these days, so anything is possible. Maybe we're on the cusp of a Gender Neutral Reading Utopia, a brave new world where women check out Retreat, Hell! and men eagerly await the next Julie Garwood.
Would that be a better world? I actually think it would. Opening your mind and expanding your horizons is a good thing. (And I personally plan to tackle Tank Battle! as soon as I've finished reading Crazy for You.)
In the meantime, want to blow your local librarian's mind? If you're female, the next time you hit the library, check out Take, Burn or Destroy. If you're a dude, bring a batch of romances up to the circulation desk for check out.
With no disclaimer.
(Extra points if you exclaim, "I can't wait to get home, pop open a beer and get lost in Sins and Scarlet Lace.)
Go ahead. Defy a few gender stereotypes. I dare you. (You might even learn something.)
(This essay first appeared in the Christian Science Monitor.)