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The Book of Men: Eighty Writers on How to Be a Man
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The Book of Men: Eighty Writers on How to Be a Man

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by Colum McCann (Editor), Tyler Cabot (Editor), Lisa Consiglio (Editor)

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To help launch the literary nonprofit Narrative 4, Esquire asked eighty of the world's greatest writers to chip in with a story, all with the title, "How to Be a Man."

The result is The Book of Men, an



To help launch the literary nonprofit Narrative 4, Esquire asked eighty of the world's greatest writers to chip in with a story, all with the title, "How to Be a Man."

The result is The Book of Men, an unflinching investigation into the essence of masculinity.

The Book of Men probes, with the poignant honesty and imagination that only these writers could deliver, the slippery condition of manhood. You will find men striving and searching, learning and failing to learn, triumphing and aspiring; men who are lost and men navigating their way toward redemption. These stories don't just explore what it is to be a man or how to achieve manliness, but ultimately what it is to be a human—with all of its uncertainty, complexity, clumsiness, and beauty.

With contributions from literary luminaries as diverse as the subjects they capture, and curated by the editors of Esquire, National Book Award winner Colum McCann, and Narrative 4, a global nonprofit devoted to using storytelling as a means to empathy, The Book of Men might not teach you how to negotiate a deal or mix a Manhattan, but it does scratch at that most eternal of questions: What is a man?

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A collection of 80 pieces on the essence and challenges of manhood that almost reads like a literary parody of self-help books. According to the introduction, the book commemorates the 80th anniversary of Esquire, a magazine that "has always sought to instruct." Here, the instruction concerns "what it means to be a man and how to live up to that responsibility." The project is a collaboration between the magazine and Narrative 4, which attempts to "connect people and communities everywhere through the sharing of stories," and the collection's contents were curated by novelist McCann (TransAtlantic, 2013, etc.), a co-founder of Narrative 4 and Esquire contributor, along with editors from each. The pieces span much of the globe, crossing gender lines (some of the best are from women, some of whom don't seem to treat manhood as seriously as many men do), featuring journalists, novelists and a few nonwriterly ringers (actor Gabriel Byrne, songwriter-producer Joe Henry). There is plenty of violence and copious amounts of tears, and there is sex that is usually more an expression of power, however twisted, than of romantic love. Some of the shortest are some of the best, such as this two-sentence contribution by Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid: "What did it even mean, walk like a man? Still, Omar was in enough pain to take off his makeup and start trying." There's a provocative piece of reportage on a transgendered performer by novelist Michael Cunningham, which ends with the question, "Men. I mean, what are we anyway?" There's also an instructional piece by Vanessa Manko that initially seems to be about sex--"It is done with the body, not with the mind. She should feel when you begin to move and if she precipitates the wrong direction, you've done something wrong"--but is really about the tango (which is really about sex). None of the pieces are titled, and many blur the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. A mixed bag. Each piece is intended to respond to "an essential question: What is a man?" but the answers remain elusive.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


Our Sundays always tasted like peppers that flared hot in the rice and soups and stews. We sat in the kitchen, knees fresh from pews, and watched our houseboy pounding them in pairs. He held the phallic pestle—thump thump thump—while we coughed and spluttered with watery eyes. Nobody tastes them raw, it wasn’t wise. But we did, and then we’d shout and jump to the fridge for ice.

My mom sang an Igbo song about strong women. It wasn’t too trite, but it told of places she didn’t know, streams, goddesses, women who couldn’t read. Women like that would squeeze peppers, I heard, and force them between their daughters’ legs—“so they’ll stop following boys.” But Eros was good for sons. No peppers to curb sons’ paths to manhood.

Nigerian author CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE, who received a 2008 MacArthur Fellowship, is the author of Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, and most recently, Americanah.

Rabih Alameddine

The beating of your heart kept me awake last night. For months after you died I kept seeing you everywhere, hearing you, your voice, sonorous, throaty, reverberating in my ear. I wasn’t crazy, I knew you were dead, I buried you after all, I mean, I burned you, cremation was what they called it. But I kept seeing you, doing dishes in the kitchen with your back to me, I’d call your name as you stacked each plate in our plastic dish rack but you didn’t look back and then you were gone in a flash and I was left with nothing, not even an afterimage. I didn’t mistake you for anybody, I never saw you in a crowd, thinking someone else was you, no, it was never like that. I would never mistake you. I saw you in the hallway, in our hallway, under the Turkish lamp we brought back from Istanbul when we were there so long ago, must have been 1987, before the virus began to scour us. The disease killed so much within us. While I was alive I loved you while you were alive and I love you now but I forgot for a while. Forgive me, I couldn’t go on obsessing about you all the time so you disappeared or hid deep in my lakes, as if I bleached my memory, but you came back, you know, like a fungal infection, remember thrush, the furry white stains that attacked your tongue and we couldn’t get rid of them and you hated it and I hated it and you wanted it over. You’d been gone for decades, why now, why infect my dreams now? What flood was this? I was buying groceries yesterday morning where a young Third Worlder mopped the floor, back and forth, back and forth, around a yellow sign that announced PISO MOJADO, the mephitic aroma of disinfectant assaulted my senses, and you jumped the levee of my memory, I thought of you right then. Proust might have had his madeleine, but bleach was all ours, my darling, all ours. The tomatoes didn’t look too good and I just went home. I’d been a coward, I was scared, do notice I said scared and not frightened, you taught me the difference, you said, Children get scared, men might feel afraid, might even feel terror, but men don’t get scared. I’d been so lonely since you died and left me, you left me roofless in a downpour. You gripped the bedrail when you left and I had to pry your fingers one by one, it took fifty-seven minutes because my hands were shaking so much, did you know that? You sincerely believed that the distance between you and me would one day disappear. You told me I was not my father and you were not him either, but how could we not be, how could we not be? You held out your arms and said, Join me, but I couldn’t, and you said, Let me love you, and I couldn’t because you wanted so to be so close, and you held out the fireman’s net and said, Jump, and I couldn’t, I felt the fall was much too great, I chose to go back into the fire because that was what men did. I could hardly bear the beauty of you. You said, I liked it when you doze on my chest, but I said, The hair on your chest irritated my cheeks and made it difficult to sleep. You were gone for so long and I moved along and everyone told me I was alive, but last night, in my bed, each time my ear touched the single pillow I heard the beating of your heart once more. Once more, please. Once more. Once more. Once more. My heart is restless until it rests in thee.

Lebanese writer and painter RABIH ALAMEDDINE is the author of Koolaids; I, the Divine; and most recently, An Unnecessary Woman.

Kurt Andersen

More than any other church in Lincoln, St. Mary’s was a building people tended to treat as a public space, a general assembly spot for events that weren’t christenings, weddings or funerals. That’s because it was big and old and downtown, right across K Street from the Nebraska state capitol; because it didn’t serve liquor, so you could bring the kids; and because it was Catholic, which in the middle of the twentieth century made it a kind of Switzerland for Protestants—made Lutherans and Methodists and Presbyterians and Baptists more comfortable than they might’ve been at a Protestant church of a denomination not their own. Thus Lincolnites of all kinds would gather in St. Mary’s basement to play bingo, listen to polka bands, watch ventriloquists, whatever.

The day after Thanksgiving in 1952, St. Mary’s put on a macaroni buffet dinner and variety show, $1.50 a ticket. It sold out. The main attraction was an actual celebrity, a young guy who’d hosted his own afternoon TV show up in Omaha for a couple of years since graduating from the University of Nebraska.

Kids made up half the audience, including exactly one who’d come all by himself, a wiry little sixteen-year-old radiating eagerness as he rushed to get a chair in the front row. A few months earlier, this boy had won the Best New Performer award at the national magicians’ convention in St. Louis. The guy about to appear onstage was pretty much exactly the man he wanted to become. A Nebraskan who’d graduated from college and was plainly on his way to a coast; a funny magician; and a TV star, local TV, but still. Plus—whoa!—the mimeographed program said he’d been a champion boxer in the Navy during the war; the kid, a Lincoln High junior people called Dick, was a gymnastics star.

As he settled in, preparing to take notes, he didn’t notice the boy three chairs away in the front row, a Lincoln High freshman on a rare night out with his big family, celebrating his fourteenth birthday. They were up front because poor Charlie, in addition to his bowed legs and funny way of pronouncing S, had terrible nearsightedness.

Charlie glared at the twerp upperclassman he recognized from the school gym, saw his notebook and ballpoint, and thought, Fuckin’ Gallant: a popular girl in his class this fall had started calling Charlie Goofus, the bad boy opposite to goody-goody Gallant in the Highlights for Children comic strip. The show began, and when the Omaha TV guy bounced onstage, Charlie sort of hated him, and envied his easy smile, his natural cool, and his fame.

Another kid named Richard, a sixth grader, was in the fourth row with his parents and little brother and sister. His mom had organized the outing: she worked across the street for the state health department and had been a local celebrity herself, before the kids came along, playing on a semi-pro women’s championship softball team three years running. Little Dicky, intelligent but literal-minded and suspicious, was frowning as usual: he didn’t get the joke the entertainer had just told about Adlai Stevenson losing the presidential election three weeks earlier, or understand why his dad, a federal bureaucrat who’d voted for Stevenson, was laughing out loud.

Laughing even harder were four people sitting together in the sixth row: the former state attorney general, his former–social worker wife, and their twenty-four-year-old lawyer son, Ted, back home from Washington, D.C., for the holiday weekend with his wife. The father, still chuckling, whispered to his son—asked if he’d ever seen Carson perform when they were at the university together, to which Ted answered no, but that he reminded him a little of his new boss, the freshman senator from Massachusetts.

The biggest, squawkiest laugh at the political joke came from near the back of the room, from another recent University of Nebraska graduate, another son of a maverick Nebraska Republican politician, another young up-and-comer who’d spent time on the East Coast trying to make his mark. He worked as a stockbroker for his dad in Omaha, but he’d recently bought a gas station as an investment and had driven down to Lincoln for the night to look at another small business that a college friend, a member of the St. Mary’s congregation, wanted him to go in on. He didn’t drink, and the prospect of such a cheap night on the town—“Dinner and a show for a buck and a half?”—had been irresistible.

In other words, of the 10,287 males between the ages of six and twenty-seven in Lincoln, Nebraska, that night in 1952, thirty-seven were in the basement of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, full of macaroni and Jell-O salad, laughing and applauding at jokes and tricks. And six of those thirty-seven became famous men. Which is to say, the magician and comedian/talk-show host Johnny Carson was onstage performing for the magician and future comedian/talk-show host Dick Cavett; Charles Starkweather, the future mass murderer; Dick Cheney, the future vice-president of the United States; Theodore Sorensen, the future special counselor and speechwriter to President Kennedy; and Warren Buffet, the future billionaire.

And the magic show was excellent.

KURT ANDERSEN, the host and co-creator of Studio 360, is the author of Heyday, Turn of the Century, and most recently, True Believers.


Copyright © 2013 by Narrative 4

Meet the Author

Colum McCann, a contributing editor at Esquire and cofounder of Narrative 4, is the National Book Award–winning author of Let the Great World Spin. He is also the author of Dancer, Everything in This Country Must, This Side of Brightness, Fishing the Sloe-Black River, and Songdogs. His new novel is TransAtlantic.

Esquire is a general interest men's magazine published by Hearst. Since its founding in 1933, it has been a showcase for the world's premiere fiction, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Stephen King.

Narrative 4 is a group of authors and activists who believe that something as simple as a story can change the world. It connects people and communities everywhere through the sharing of stories and works to create a global narrative for all of us.

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The Book of Men: Eighty Writers on How to Be a Man 2.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is garbage. It doesn't even make any sense.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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