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Who to blame if men dont read? Why — women, of course.

April 27, 2010

'Young Man Reading By Candlelight,' Matthias Stom (Dutch, 1600-1652).

“The man who doesn’t read good books,” Mark Twain said, “has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.” If that’s true, then modern men are functionally illiterate: Almost all books are bought and read by women. But why? Let the backlash begin.

Last week I suggested it may be time to disband Britain’s Orange Prize, which is restricted to female authors, on the grounds that since only women buy and read books nowadays all literature is by definition “women’s literature” and the need for the prize is therefore obsolete.

I was kidding (sort of), but my larger point — men do not read — is not disputed by anyone. Study after study proves that men account for less than 20 percent of the book market in England, the U.S. and Canada. This fact no longer in dispute, the only question becomes why don’t men read? Why do they choose to forego Twain’s “advantage?”

It turns out that the whole problem is — you guessed it! — women’s fault. At least that’s the answer if you ask the few guys who actually do read books, especially if they happen to be writers themselves, or worked at some point in the publishing industry.

Take Jason Pinter, for example, writing at the Huffington Post. A thriller writer who used to work in publishing, he argues that men actually do read. The notion they don’t is a self-fulfilling prophecy: “[P]ublishers rarely publish for men and don’t market towards men,” he writes.

“Nobody can deny the fact that most editorial meetings tend to be dominated by women,” Pinder writes. “Saying the ratio is 75/25 is not overstating things. So needless to say when a male editor pitches a book aimed at men, there are perilously few men to read it and give their opinions.”

Will Weaver, who writes young adult books, goes further, blaming not only publishing but our entire culture. Also at the Huffington Post, his indictment is much the same as Pinder’s, though. He describes going to Manhattan bookstore, where the Teen Section, all flowery and fem, contained 275 books for girls and a handful of fantasy titles for boys.

“The bias against boy books in publishing has gotten so bad nowadays that my editor now reads manuscripts, he confessed, with an eye toward ‘re-gendering,'” Weaver writes. “That is, ‘I sort of like this novel but what if the main character were a girl instead of a boy?'”

I’ll grant Weaver has a point about the need for more effort to attract boys to reading, and I’ll give Pinder props for writing respectfully of women in publishing. His critique is institutional.

Still, these writers (and others before them, like Stephen King or Chris Goldberg), however sensitive and reasonable they may be, come down ultimately to this: Publishing has been feminized, nothing is marketed to men. In other words, it’s no our fault if we don’t read. It’s the women. Again.

As a man who has read all his life, I find this faintly patronizing and more than a little insulting. I have to be marketed to before I can turn off the TV or the video game and read a book? Geez, Mom, is my bottle warm yet? I’m hungry.

These arguments ignore that women not only read all the chicklit — female readers dominate the categories I would consider male-centric, like espionage/thriller (69 percent), mystery/detective (86 percent), science fiction (52 percent). That’s according to a 2000 study — the figures may be worse today.

Given the surprising note of whining in these masculine essays, I’ve come to the conclusion that men don’t read because — well, because they aren’t men. They’re spoiled little crybabies,  and adolescents who refuse to grow up.

I mean, it’s not enough that Hollywood is oriented entirely toward the tastes of 14-year-old boys. The rest of society must be, too. Else, the big boys will take their balls and go home.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, or otherwise deluded, but I always thought a man was someone who knew his own mind, made his own decisions, and took responsibility for his actions. I guess I was wrong. A man, it seems, is someone who has to be catered to by the rest of the world.

And if he isnt, blame the wimmin.

Sigh. I guess I should get off my high horse and accept that the paradigm of American manhood is no longer Hemingway, or John Wayne, or Clint Eastwood. It’s Seth Rogen. With that in mind, how do we get him to read?

I suggest Maxim, or one of the other “lad” magazines, should be invited to start a book publishing imprint. And get Budweiser’s ad agency to do the campaign.

What do you suggest?

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33 Comments leave one →
  1. Tommy Smart permalink
    April 27, 2010 2:16 pm

    I live in a glass daycare center, so I really can’t throw stones. I am no Eastwood, Wayne or Hemingway. I am also no Seth Rogen. But I read, probably more than most men. I’m having trouble with your position that men aren’t men anymore, and that’s why they reportedly don’t read. It’s such a simplistic view from such a brilliant dude. Maybe men don’t answer surveys, so the results of these studies are skewed.

    Want an author who writes about men and their flaws, without flinching, sugar-coating or making excuses, read some of Henning Mankell’s novels like “Italian Shoes” or “Depths”, but only if your a guy, no girls aloud!

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 27, 2010 2:25 pm

    My conclusion that men don’t read because they aren’t men but overgrown boys is the conclusion I reach from reading the essays by Stephen King, Jason Pinter, Will Weaver, and etc. Although I do think I’m on to something. You can’t see it because you are a man who read (and therefore, by my definition, a Real Man). Don’t bother defending your gender — most guys wouldn’t do the same for you. As a reader, you are in the elite. The few. The proud.

    I’m also serious about Maxim and Budweiser. If Maxim transferred its “lad” model to book publishing (soft core porn, lots of reader flattery, lots of beer, food, sports and unrealistic action), then get a good (which is to say, in possession of neither ruth nor soul) ad agency to promote it, I’m betting masculine readers could be scared up.

  3. April 27, 2010 2:35 pm

    I can’t dispute Pinter’s firsthand experience from inside publishing (and that anecdote about the 15-year-old nephew would be enough to send me around the bend) but … really? Aren’t celebrity memoirs from popular pursuits all the rage, or is that just in the U.K.? I have no way to get any statistics from inside my place of work since we don’t classify patrons by gender but my observation is that men ARE reading — lots of lots of men — and they’re being published for, too, led by the mighty James Patterson (granted his inexplicable popularity does seem to be gender neutral) but lots of other popular writers, e.g. John Sandford, Harlan Coben, Clive Cussler, etc., seem to appeal mostly to men. And what about all those biographies of Great Men and Greatest Generations, etc.? It’s somewhat generational — our younger readers tend to be women more than men, but not exclusively so. Anyway that’s my two cents from the field.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 27, 2010 2:45 pm

      The thing is, Nan, the books and the categories you cite, which certainly would seem to be aimed at men, are nonetheless primarily read by women. The semi-exception is in nonfiction, which men read in higher numbers than fiction. But for the most part, men don’t read. Women do. And if you know men that read, it’s because you’re a reader yourself, and that’s the kind of man you gravitate to. Birds of a feather, and all that.

  4. Tommy Smart permalink
    April 27, 2010 2:35 pm

    I would never try to defend my gender, there are just too many that I would walk out past the castle walls. While I am in the banishing mood though, believe it would be all guys.

    I haven’t read all of Pinder’s article or any of King’s yet. What I have gathered from Pinder’s remarks reprinted here on this blog is his chauvinistic attitude that the females at these editorial meetings could not possibly relate to a man, so they cannot give input on whether a man would be interested in a book. That’s kind of like saying the only books I really could ever enjoy are the one’s where the main character is male. Rubbish.

    I’ll be back after I find time to read the essay’s especially King’s. I am also very interested in what the female contributors to this blog have to say. In my mind if I am going to blame women for anything book related, it’s that I read so much literature and such high quality lit.

    • Tommy Smart permalink
      April 27, 2010 2:37 pm

      Doh, *don’t* believe it would be all guys*

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 27, 2010 2:48 pm

      I wouldn’t go so far as to call Pinder (or any of hte other guys cited here) as “chauvinistic.” On the contrary, he bends over backwards to avoid any such perception. Still, his conclusion is that publishing has been feminized. I don’t know any other way you could take his piece. In my humble opinion, that’s blaming someone else for my problem.

      • Tommy Smart permalink
        April 27, 2010 3:05 pm

        Okay, after reading the article I take back chauvinistic. My apologies Chris Pinder, if you’re reading.

        In the Maxim/Budweiser scenario. Would that lead to good fiction? Would you have more men read, even if it was garbage, in the off chance something more substantial may enter the cave? Wouldn’t that further alienate women readers?

        Women may (I say may) be better equipped to handle the stigma reading possesses. Readers just aren’t considered cool, or hot, or hip by mainstream America. I never saw Eastwood reading a book in his films. So maybe the answer is to make reading cool, god did I just type that. I took a course in welding, one day I showed up with a copy of “Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth”, let the terrorizing begin, everything from my nationality to my sexuality was questioned by my classmates, next day I bring in a King novel, Cujo, I think, the day was better, but they still called me “The Reader”, and not in a nice way.

      • Tommy Smart permalink
        April 27, 2010 3:06 pm

        Which problem?

    • ThirteenthLetter permalink
      November 5, 2013 3:26 am

      “What I have gathered from Pinder’s remarks reprinted here on this blog is his chauvinistic attitude that the females at these editorial meetings could not possibly relate to a man, so they cannot give input on whether a man would be interested in a book”

      Just out of curiosity, would you be equally relaxed about a 75% male editorial meeting’s ability to relate to women?

  5. Candice Simmons permalink
    April 27, 2010 2:58 pm

    Women shop. Men don’t as much. Therefore, women buy more books, much like they buy more groceries, clothes (even men’s clothes), ect. Doesn’t necessarily mean don’t read books, just that they don’t buy them.

    If you want men to buy books, sell them at Lowes, or other “hardware” stores, motorcycle shops and the like.

    The publishing industry is 75 percent women–probably because it’s an industry that doesn’t boast huge salaries or chances of promotion. That was true when I was in publishing. Perhaps it’s changed by now.

    My personal experience–my husband tended toward newspapers and magazines rather than books. He was an avid reader (and fantastic reporter), but books were generally not his forte.

    That’s my two cents. Good luck in figuring in all out, Chauncey Mabe.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 27, 2010 3:22 pm

      So many great novelist have been males, often manly men: Cervantes, Swift, Dafoe, Fielding, Dickens, Twain, Hemingway, Mailer….As a man who has read avidly since the first grade, both fiction and nonfiction, I cannot account for the lack of male book readers. My dad was much like your husband. In fact, I picked up my love of newspapers and magazines from him. It’s true that men like shopping less than women, but as you suggest men will go to a store dedicated to their interests. Nowdays, you don’t have to go to the mall to find a bookstore. Barnes & Noble, Borders are usually freestanding stores. On the other hand, books are already sold at Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club and other places where men are known to frequent. Adding Lowes, Home Depot, Bass Pro Shop and the like couldn’t hurt.

      • Candice Simmons permalink
        April 27, 2010 8:12 pm

        That’s funny. My dad preferred newspapers too. Read them cover to cover every night.

        When Mick and I would go to the bookstore, which was a blissful “date” for us, he’d come home with four or five newspapers, art books, poetry books, cookbooks. I’m the one who always went for the fiction, though he’d often help me pick out the books. Strange that he rarely read them though….But when he did find one he really liked, he would read it over and over….

  6. April 27, 2010 3:00 pm

    Well, I do work in a library and like I said my observation is that it is primarily men (though primarily older men) who are reading Sandford, Cussler, Coben et. al. as well as the nonfiction. Also the slightly less macho stuff like Connelly and Parker. James Patterson and also Stuart Woods seem to be more gender neutral — but they have as many men readers as women. One of the challenging parts of my job is keeping a straight face when the patron marches in and asks if we have “the new Patterson” or “the new Woods.” Fortunately it’s easy to search through the dozens of titles in the computer system for the most recently published …

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 27, 2010 3:24 pm

      I always say it’s better to read a bad book than watch a good TV show, although I must confess some books strain that adage. Anything by Patterson, for example. Thanks for the personal insights on who’s reading what.

  7. Sean permalink
    April 27, 2010 3:24 pm

    Greetings, fellow Under 20 Percenters. I, too, await Maxim’s maiden foray into guy lit.

    My ex-wife worked for the romance novel publisher Harlequin in NYC just out of college, before she and I met. She edited manuscripts and wrote jacket copy. As you might imagine just about everybody in this ecosystem from readers to editors to authors was female. I’m guessing the lone guy was the downstairs deli manager who showed up midafternoon rolling a coffee tray.

    My ex- said the Harlequin staff did field a serviceable softball team that played in a Central Park league against other media and publishing squads – male, female and co-ed. So whatever the very feminine sensibilities of the literary culture at Harlequin, the women working there weren’t living 24-7 in some distaff dreamworld where men did not go. Their job was just to put out a product aimed at a reliable audience of repeat customers, which happened to be women, and after that everyone went about their normal gender-neutral lives.

    (Though I do remember once that she and I were arguing and I said something like, “Stop talking to me like we’re in one of your books.” That went over well. Did I mention we got divorced?)

    My point being that the female-ratio complaints about book publishing sound reactionary and fixate on proportional representation/redistribution as a solution to an alleged “problem.” I see no evidence from my reading that women editors are feminizing literature. So in addition to being crybabies, the guys Chauncey mentions may also be quota queens.

    @Tommy Smart I just traded Henning Mankell ‘Faceless Killers’ for Steig Larsson ‘ … Girl With … ‘. Haven’t started Mankell but will soon. Thanks for the recommend.

    • Tommy Smart permalink
      April 27, 2010 4:02 pm

      Sean, I have not read any of the Wallander series, but Faceless Killers seems the logical starting point, it being the first one. Please let me know what you think of it when you’re done. I was referring more to Mankell’s non crime-fiction after having been disappointed with “Kennedy’s Brain”. BBC has made film versions of 8 of the Wallander books, so if you are into that sort of thing, it may be worth a look.

      Also, could you share your thoughts on “The Girl…”

  8. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 27, 2010 3:58 pm

    Sean, your elegant way with a sentence always elevates this blog when you grace it with your presence. Interestingly, way back around 1990, a high-level editor at the Sun-Sentinel, a female, let me quickly add, was a dedicated reader of Harlequin romances. She was extremely bright, well-educated, ambitious, accomplished and in a position of power, with many men among those working under her supervision. Romance novels were a delicious weakness for her, kind of like what the sci-fi channel is for me. I liked and admired her, and knowing her gave me new insight into why people read what they read….Perhaps if you had read more romance novels yourself, you might have argued more effectively with your ex? Just a thought.

    I don’t see much obvious feminizing in publishing, either. This week’s NYT bestseller list is evening divided between men and women writers, with five each in the top 10. Okay, I’ll agree that Robert Paul Evans is kind of an honorary female, but that’s more than offset by the masculine fare on offer: a manly crime thriller by Harlan Cobin, an award-winning Vietnam combat novel, a fantasy novel featuring wizards, and, uh, a crime thriller set in Chicago featuring…wizards. OMG–how bizarre is that?

  9. Sean permalink
    April 27, 2010 7:30 pm

    “… a fantasy novel featuring wizards, and, uh, a crime thriller set in Chicago featuring…wizards.”

    Soundtrack by Rick Wakeman.

    Hey Chauncey this blog elevates me!

    @Tommy, the ‘Girl’ in question, Lisbeth, is more superwoman than plausible heroine even with all of her supposedly humanizing character tics and flaws, but she does resemble – in intelligence, dress and cagey temperament – some real-life punk rock grrls I know. So Larsson to his credit took an interest depicting a punk/hacker subculture that I’m guessing doesn’t feature often in mainstream crime fiction. (A more interesting heroine and supporting band of hackers resides in William Gibson’s “Pattern Recognition,’ which is not a thriller or a beach book or Gibson’s trademark jaundiced hipster sci fi. It’s a straight-up existential novel for the Information Age.)

    Lisbeth’s ally in the novel , the washed-up journalist Mikal, is a lot more familiar as a character type, but he also feels more real. And Mikal’s understanding of all the major wealth and class-privilege issues at play in the narrative are vital to the book because, bottom line, Lisbeth is just a kid with a high IQ who hasn’t lived long enough to know squat except how to infiltrate other people’s computers. So Larsson was smart to have a wizened, middle-aged male journalist anchor the storytelling. But she’s the sensation and the fictional hottie getting all the attention out here in mediaworld, not surprisingly.

    I got pretty well absorbed by the story and the plotline and didn’t mind so much that the book could have been 100 pages shorter. I do read a bunch of crime, and some horror, along with non-genre novels. But Mankell in any case is all new to me, and I’m starting with the first book of his I’ve run into. This Swedish book swap (which sounds like something people do when they’ve been roofied) started with a conversation with a friend about Larsson and wound up with a recommendation of Mankell. I look forward to reading ‘Faceless’ and some of his noncrime fiction. Cheers, S.

  10. April 28, 2010 11:07 am

    I must live in a bubble where all genders read. All my life I have been surrounded by both men and women who love to read. Let me say, it is a nice place to be…

  11. Holly Wehmeyer permalink
    May 2, 2010 12:58 am

    I think one of the other comments hit upon the issue. It’s not seen as “cool” for boys to read. And perhaps this translates into men who do not read? Now, I live in a world similar to some of the others commenting on your blog: as an avid reader, most of my friends are also avid readers, both men and women. And yet, my book group contains less testosterone than we’d like. The “shopping” issue is an interesting one. This is one woman who hates shopping – except when it comes to books! Good luck solving this mystery, Chauncey.

  12. May 20, 2010 8:38 pm

    I do apologize if I have misinterpreted your post here on my hub. I’ve read it again and despite all the sarcasm, I must confess that it does seem to me that at the end of the day it all does boil down to women! I am not being a feminist here, but I do agree to the fact that most written material is catered to the female population – be it through Oprah’s Book Club or through direct marketing by publishing houses. My own experience tells me that literature as it is today is targeting the female psyche. But then I may be wrong as I have no expertise in this matter, just what I see and hear around me.

    This topic may well be a wonderful subject for a healthy debate!

    But I will stick by what I said about men as writers. And your blog is a wonderful example of that! At the risk of attracting wrath from fellow women writers, let me reiterate – Men do write better than women!

    • Hunter Allen permalink
      May 17, 2011 2:23 am

      I have to admit this article has left me rather crestfallen. I – for many years now- have been planning on writing a book that would largely marketed to a younger male audience, but after researching male reading patterns and coming across this artical Im starting to think it would be a spectacular waste of time and on the whole rather humiliating.

  13. DeepThought permalink
    October 31, 2013 12:53 pm

    Let me get this straight. My son and I went to Barnes & Noble last week to spend his birthday money on books. His two favorites areas are History and Sci-Fi/Fantasy. We had little problems getting a history book on the Civil War but the Sci-Fi section was predominately authored by women for women. Many of the covers and topics discussed in those books would have been better placed in the Romance section.

    We left buying nothing from that section and instead I directed him to the Tarzan series. An online order for several of the books in that series was placed on Amazon.

    I was stunned how feminized B&B had become and it did not surprise me that men have stopped purchasing books.

    This is a topic my son and I have spoken of in the past, how feminized school and books have become. Read up on this topic and look at this topic and you can see that men and women do have different tastes. Your argument is filtered through your political correct world and is frankly wrong and shows series deficiencies in your ability to logical connect facts with your argument. You write like a women, so it is not surprising you attack men.

  14. October 31, 2013 10:20 pm

    Yeah, I think one of the big things was that video games started to take over the spot of books for the average tween kid who would have been big into reading. It’s a theory of mine that once we hit the CD-rom generation, games were no longer supplemental experiences that you played while doing other things because they only lasted so long. They became compelling enough to unseat books for kids in their own right.

    Like the bright twelve year old who used to devour science fiction or sports stories instead plays Call of Duty, Minecraft, free-to-play games and MMOs, and Madden. Especially with online gaming, games start to offer never-ending, awesome adrenaline-laced experiences, and are cheap enough that almost every family has if not an xbox360, a wii or PS2.

    With a generation of boys reading less, it showed up in the market. While girls also embrace gaming, they don’t in large enough numbers or interact with it enough for it to replace reading. So over a couple of generations, we see the imbalance.

    I’m sure there’s more-the weakening of bookstores and libraries hasn’t been good. But I think this is a big part of why the imbalance.

  15. Glenfilthie permalink
    November 1, 2013 4:52 am

    What an a contemptible scribble. Let me understand your position here: your product doesn’t sell into a particular market…so it is the market’s fault? So OBVIOUSLY the problem has to be that men are only capable of appreciating comic books. Gawd, I get headaches when I argue with stupid women – and their beta male lickspittles. Going further into this craptacular post…I as a consumer should man up and pay for a product that has been faggotified and feminized for a market segment I have nothing in common with. Buddy – I’m 50 years old and I’m sorry, but I have read too many female authors to waste my money on them anymore. I would rather read comic books and play video games or rip my guts out with a fork rather than read chick-lit or watch chick-flicks.

    I am a voracious reader – or was until about 2005 when I noticed an odd trend developing: a veritable avalanche of crappy books were hitting the shelves – and the vast majority of them were being written by women. Today if the author is female I simply won’t buy the book – unless I have a recommendation from somebody I respect. I will not accept recommendations from the self proclaimed experts and critics; most of them are bitchy metrosexuals and hairy chested feminists that aren’t worth the time of day either. Bloggers from the so-called ‘manosphere’ have the odd recommendation but right now…it’s hit or miss out there.

  16. November 7, 2013 12:48 am

    Women have ruined publishing. There I said it. Because it is true. The dirty, nastly little secret is that publishing runs on women. Or to put it another way, cheap labor.

    The vast majority of readers, assistant publishers, etc. are women. The readers particularly or gatekeepers get paid below market wages but are willing to undertake this work because it is “respectable” and allows them to flaunt status while hunting the elusive Alpha Male, earning peanuts, if that, and living three to an apartment. Publishing in NYC is a total disaster, because women took it over and turned it into a gay-female ghetto. Hostile and subject to herd-think regarding pretty much masculine. Which is half the population. Worse, women have zero, zilch, nada understanding of the male condition, overwhelmingly (there are/were a few exceptions, but not many).

    Readers are almost entirely young women with no life experience at all but dogma poured down their throats at universities, that have no correlation with human behavior and history.

    By pursuing a cheap-labor policy (young 20 something women readers of fashionable politics and background working for below a family-supporting wage); publishers have copied the genius moves of coffee roasters in the 1950’s, who by using ever more crummy robusta beans weaned generations off coffee until drinkable, tasty coffee was defined soley by Starbucks. And Maxwell House, Folgers etc. was mop-water swill not fit for human consumption.

    Men are reading, but independent e-books. Not the mainstream feminine junk. The late Vince Flynn, whose sold millions of books and has been on the NYT best-seller list for every book, started out with self-publishing. Too masculine for feminine readers. Yes Fifty Shades of Mommy Porn makes a lot of money. But the point is that most men view print books as feminine tripe (because well, they are). And avoid them like the plague. Books they do read are likely to be indie, self-published ebooks. And publishers having high fixed costs cannot depend on women alone.

    Ask yourself, is the publishing industry healthy? Are publishers raising salaries, hiring new people, expanding, launching new imprints, engaging in bidding wars for not just hot authors but lower-tier ones, and assistant editors, and so on? Are more print books being sold every year?

  17. November 7, 2013 1:13 am

    Let me add, if anyone takes issue with women ruining publishing, compare/contrast say, the utter trite junk that is Stieg Larsson with say, Dashiell Hammett, Eric Ambler, Geoffrey Household, Adam Hall, or Donald E. Westlake.

    The most formulaic Quiller book is far better, in describing actual human behavior, and raising chills, than the best Larsson. Hammett? You want a real, hard-edged look at society from all angles (and having everyone found wanting) take a look at Red Harvest.
    But then, these authors wrote for men, in a male-oriented publishing business.

    Male-dominated publishing had its faults, but produced BETTER and not just by a little, but by a LOT, books in every genre.

    Rogue Male by Household, the Parker and Dortmunder series by Westlake (aka “Richard Stark”), Eric Ambler’s thrillers, Heinlein, Niven, Clarke, and Orson Scott Card beat the pants off the stuff done in mystery, thriller, and science fiction today. In fantasy, guys like Michael Moorcock and Tim Powers beat the hell out of “Teen Paranormal Romance.”

    The old male-dominated system produced just better results. There were still women writers, from Andre Norton to Ngaio Marsh to Agatha Christie. They just had to be good. Marsh and Christie were up against Rex Stout. They had to raise their game, in terms of craftsmanship, entertaining readers, and basic plots.

    Female dominated systems produces low competition. You get “Battle Royale” rip-offs like the Hunger Games. Twilight. Mommy porn. What do you not get?

    You don’t get a novel like Day of the Jackal. Or The Levanter. Or State of Siege. Or The Bank Job. Or Rogue Male.

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