Eat, Pray, Love, Scratch Your Head

For years I’ve wondered if there are basic differences between the ways that men and women read. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love—a blockbuster best-seller and movie—rekindled this question. After reading the book, in fact, I’m amazed that men and women get along at all.

First, a caveat. I’m not speaking in absolutes here. Of course, some men will go ga-ga for Eat, Pray, Love (EPL). And some women will ricochet the book against a wall and then into a trash can.

And yet I suspect that Gilbert’s readership consists mainly of women. After all, women appear to buy and read more books than men. This was a major finding from an Associated Press/Ipsos Poll (published August 21, 2007). It is supported by results from the Women and Books 2007 survey done by Content Connections.

In addition, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence for differences in male and female reading preferences. Check this out for yourself: How many of your male friends and relatives regularly attend a book group? How about your female friends and relatives? In my experience, female book group members easily outnumber their male counterparts.

On the basis of this modest evidence, I’m going to risk a prediction: Women are far more likely to connect with EPL than men. Countless men will be left scratching their head and wondering the heck all the fuss is about.

Some specific points of disconnection:

Why is she crying like that?

Early in EPL comes an account of Gilbert hiding in her bathroom and sobbing “a great lake of tears and snot” all over the tiles. Gilbert makes it clear that she’s in despair about the state of her marriage. Yet she reveals few specifics about the nature of her conflict with her husband.

I respect Gilbert’s right to confidentiality. At the same time, this section falls flat for me. Millions of women might empathize with the mere display of emotion. But many men are going to ask what words or events precipitated all those tears.

You gained 30 pounds, and then you did what?

The first part of EPL is subtitled “36 Tales About the Pursuit of Pleasure.” It chronicles Gilbert’s stay in Italy, where she drank a lot of wine, ate a lot pasta, and developed an intense attraction to a younger man. The theme: Once in a while, a girl’s just gotta have fun.

Fine. But the next part of the book takes us to India, where Gilbert moves in to an ashram and practices yoga and meditation for hours each day. The sudden and seemingly effortless switch from self-indulgence to ascetic spiritual practice left my head reeling. This just doesn’t ring true. (Ditto for the men portrayed in this book, who have all the depth of characters from a Nicholas Sparks novel.)

You did all that in one year?

Gilbert ends her book with an account of her stay in Bali. There she continues to meditate but takes breaks to find a lover named Felipe and rediscover sex.

Again, I wouldn’t deny her any of this. But I finished the book with the impression that pasta, wine, enlightenment, sex, and love all exist on an equal plane. All are yours for the taking, with a minimum of effort, and in short order. (The events in EPL take place over just 12 months.)

Or, put more crudely: You can have anything you want. Everything you want. Now.

Alas, this is the message behind so much of what’s being published for the self-help and spirituality markets these days. (The works of Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra, and Tony Robbins come to mind, along with the slew of titles about the “Law of Attraction.”)

A close reading of the Christian Gospels, the Buddhist sutras, the Upanishads, and the Tao te Ching immediately reveals that the great spiritual teachers of humanity had a different agenda. They extol the virtues of simplicity, restraint, and detachment from desire. But much of that is lost as these primordial teachings get imported to America and sacrificed to the Western gods of lust, power, money, and fame.

In short, many men will read EPL and then dismiss it as:

  • A New Age fairy tale
  • A tiresome account of one affluent woman’s first-world dilemmas
  • Something to read because talking about it might impress a woman

I sympathize with those assessments, but I can’t stop there.

After all, it’s women who are buying most of the books and starting most of the book groups. Male writers who want to sell books must come to terms with an acutely different sensibility.

It won’t be easy.