Women tend to simply read more than men -- one study by the Associated Press found that among avid readers, women read nine books a year while men read five. The men outpaced the women in reading biographies and historical books, though, and booksellers say that women make up the clear majority of fiction readers.
According to one theory, women read more fiction than men because they possess greater quantities of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are activated when we do something, as well as when we watch somebody else do the same thing. In other words, mirror neurons help us put ourselves in another person's shoes, and they are tied closely to empathy. It's possible that women are better able to empathize with fictional characters because of their mirror neurons, which makes them more likely to invest in characters' journeys.
British author Ian McEwen did his own study -- although admittedly unscientific -- by handing out 30 free copies of one of his novels in a London park. Nearly all who took advantage of the free books were women. McEwen said, "When women stop reading, the novel will be dead" [source: NPR].
McEwen may not be too far off in his prediction. Both the Associated Press poll and a 2007 poll from the National Endowment for the Arts have tracked declines in reading for pleasure among Americans. The NEA poll showed that literary reading has declined for both genders, across all education levels and in nearly every age group. It also said that only 47 percent of adults had read a novel, short story, play or poem in the past year [source: NEA]. The report showed that the gap between reading scores for male and female 12th-grade students had widened from 1992 to 2005. Girls outperformed boys on literary reading, reading for information and reading to perform a task. Women also outscored men on adult literacy tests. The report detailed the value of reading fiction or any book, as long as children and adults balance television and other media time with increased time spent reading.
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