Five Books that Taught Me Something About Being a Man

T Cooper, the author of Real Man Adventures, picks his favorite books about the subject of masculinity

01.28.14 8:24 PM ET

I am a man. A fact I don’t take for granted, by the way—as I was not born a man. But you know what? It turns out nobody else is born a man either. Sure, roughly half of us humans are born male—but only a fraction of that fraction actually grow into men. To me, masculinity is earned, learned, taught, fraught, bought, borrowed, traded, sometimes stolen. It was certainly something I had to work for, and risk everything I ever had to attain, although of course “masculinity” is constantly evolving, more of a concept/construct than an actual thing—an “I know it when I see it” deal, like the Supreme Court and pornography. For me, masculinity has been a blessing. And sometimes a curse. I was a student of masculinity from a very young age, (perhaps even as I bathed in a hormone cocktail in the womb). All the movies and TV shows I watched, people I met, music I listened to—and the books I read—were to some degree lessons in becoming a man. Here are five of those books:

by Harper Lee

If Atticus Finch wasn’t the first, he was certainly among the first few literary characters who taught me what it means to be a man. And those lessons—about doing the right thing even if it isn’t easy or popular; being able to admit you’re wrong sometimes; stepping up and acting like a father whether on or off the clock—while simple, are as true now as they have ever been. I love that it took a woman to conjure one of the best “real men” in modern American culture.

by Philip Roth

Lewd, rude, cruel, funny, angry, self-hating, perverted, juvenile, self-mocking, blasphemous, self-abusing (I could go on), Alexander Portnoy teaches more by negative example than anything. It’s the immigrant experience (to America, to manhood) that resounds most for me, the freedom to reinvent oneself, the growing up we all need to do on a moment-to-moment basis. A favorite Portnism: “A Jewish man with his parents alive is half the time a helpless infant.”

by Chuck Palahniuk

I don’t love this book, but I love reading it, as it is eminently read-able. I’ve read it a few times, most recently before alluding to it in a chapter called “Man Club” in my own literary meditation on masculinity (Real Man Adventures). The Walter Mitty-esque, bipolar nature of the character(s) of Tyler Durden and the narrator speaks to me, the multiple versions of one’s self the mind is capable of holding simultaneously. Also the sheer rage—at oneself, the world, at Ikea—that modern men seem to feel entitled to. Sure, I’ll indulge in it, but only for so long, until, say, I pick up a newspaper, and am reminded yet again how little white men in America have to be legitimately angry at.

by Kate Bornstein

Because sometimes the way to becoming a man is realizing that you in fact aren’t one. I know that sounds crazy, but it won’t if you read this excellent, important book.

by William Shakespeare

I recognized Othello the minute I met him in 11th grade English. Or maybe it was 9th. He is the original alien, the strange man in a strange land. The self-sabotaging guy who bricks it all because he’ll never see in himself what his woman sees in him—nor ever truly accept his own glaring otherness, even though it is the last thing she sees or thinks of when she looks at him.