In yesterday's Guardian novelist Eli Gottlieb offered a "top ten battle-of-the-sexes" reading list. Its offerings range from Edward Albee's play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" to August Strindberg's "Miss Julie." It's a feature designed to make us all smile, albeit rather nervously.
Who is it that best captures the interaction of the sexes? If you think in terms of conflict, there's always Shakespeare ("Taming of the Shrew") – or there's P. G. Wodehouse. If you prefer the falling in love part, once again, there's Shakespeare. Or D. H. Lawrence or Kate Chopin or Emily and/or Charlotte Bronte or – well, make your own list.
Then there's the staying in love part. If you want to see how not to do it, try Gustave Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" or Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina." (See Yvonne Zipp's review this week of "What Happened to Anna K.," a modern take Tolstoy's masterpiece. You can also hear her interview the author, Irina Reyn.)
In other words, if they stuck to the canon wherever you went to high school or college, in theory you picked up a lot of knowledge about male-female relationships. But did any of us actually learn much from it all?
Maybe, maybe not. One tricky thing may be the propensity we all have for (once we're out of school, anyway) for reading things that reinforce rather than challenge our world view. A few years ago, the Observer did a piece entitled "Are Women Still a Closed Book to Men?" on the reading habits of men who like fiction. Picking up on a piece of research done at the 10th anniversary of the Orange Prize (a prize for works by women writers), perhaps not too surprisingly, the piece suggested that men who read fiction read almost exclusively fiction by men.
So it raises an interesting question: Does reading help to narrow the gap between the sexes – or simply deepen the trenches?