(I posted this originally on Facebook on June 4, 2008. Here’s an archived copy on my own blog).
Rachel Donadio on literary tastes:
We’ve all been there. Or some of us have. Anyone who cares about books has at some point confronted the Pushkin problem: when a missed — or misguided — literary reference makes it chillingly clear that a romance is going nowhere fast. At least since Dante’s Paolo and Francesca fell in love over tales of Lancelot, literary taste has been a good shorthand for gauging compatibility. These days, thanks to social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, listing your favorite books and authors is a crucial, if risky, part of self-branding. When it comes to online dating, even casual references can turn into deal breakers. Sussing out a date’s taste in books is “actually a pretty good way — as a sort of first pass — of getting a sense of someone,” said Anna Fels, a Manhattan psychiatrist and the author of “Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives.” “It’s a bit of a Rorschach test.” To Fels (who happens to be married to the literary publisher and writer James Atlas), reading habits can be a rough indicator of other qualities. “It tells something about … their level of intellectual curiosity, what their style is,” Fels said. “It speaks to class, educational level.”
James Collins, whose new novel, “Beginner’s Greek,” is about a man who falls for a woman he sees reading “The Magic Mountain” on a plane, recalled that after college, he was “infatuated” with a woman who had a copy of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” on her bedside table. “I basically knew nothing about Kundera, but I remember thinking, ‘Uh-oh; trendy, bogus metaphysics, sex involving a bowler hat,’ and I never did think about the person the same way (and nothing ever happened),” he wrote in an e-mail message. “I know there were occasions when I just wrote people off completely because of what they were reading long before it ever got near the point of falling in or out of love: Baudrillard (way too pretentious), John Irving (way too middlebrow), Virginia Woolf (way too Virginia Woolf).” Come to think of it, Collins added, “I do know people who almost broke up” over “The Corrections” by Jonathan Franzen: “‘Overrated!’ ‘Brilliant!’ ‘Overrated!’ ‘Brilliant!’”
(See also David Rothman’s March 30 post E-books, Pushkin and the dating bar and my note on Kundera below).
Novels are no longer reliable cultural reference points in the dating sphere, except to indicate education level, free time availability and participation in book clubs.
I have done online dating for several years on match.com and used to pay attention to book titles mentioned on ads. I made sure to namedrop a few highbrow titles on my own dating profile, but I don’t think it impressed anyone except myself. Most book titles listed on dating profiles indicated quasi-religious nonfiction (Your Best Life Now) or bland best sellers (Da Vinci Code) or cult classics (Ayn Rand, Tom Robbins) or titles read in college (Great Gatsby) or political diatribe (Ann Coulter) or light reading (Dave Barry) or middlebrow nonfiction (Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink). Oprah titles appear on woman’s dating profiles, which is neither surprising nor bad — just uninteresting. For bookish people, titles matter, but for nonbookish people, they simply refer to the latest cultural craze which the person has fallen victim to. I almost would prefer non-bookish people to leave this question blank rather than say something fake. If asked to name my favorite football team, I probably could come up with a recognizable team name (didn’t Green Bay win the Super Bowl recently?), but why fake an interest? I’m almost prefer dating profiles that give a glib nonanswer or a ridiculous book title ( 101 Eggplant Recipes or Pilates for Dummies). Books matter for some people, not for others. I accept that.
I am still single, but even if Ms. Right shows up on the scene, I doubt she would know my favorite authors of the moment (Dino Buzzati, Felipe Alfau, Arnold Bennett) nor would I know hers. Wouldn’t it be enough just to meet someone who reads SOMETHING — anything– on a regular basis … if only because it implies tolerance for a book-saturated apartment. James Joyce once wrote that there is nothing sexier than a woman with a book in her hand. But who carries books around anymore? (I live in Houston, a place without decent mass transit, so the only place to carry around books is in the car). A female friend of mine used to hang around bookstores … partly for the coffee, but also for the chance to meet interesting men. But for the most part she rarely reads… except business books and fashion magazines. Nonetheless, she likes giving the impression of being a reader. I recall Bernard Malamud’s wonderful short story, a Summer’s Reading, where a teenage boy resolves to read 100 books over the summer and notices that people treat him more respectfully after he announces this goal .. regardless of whether he actually reads anything. At the end, when the boy has read nothing and his charade is nearly exposed by a neighborhood fellow, he heads off to the library and counts off 100 books at random. Malamud’s story ends with a question mark; will the boy actually read any of these books? Will he enjoy it? The reader of the short story wishes something wonderful will happen. Wouldn’t it be nice if the boy discovers a nice book about automobiles or a sci fi novel or a pornographic novel or a socialist diatribe or a history of the Civil War –something to shake this boy’s world up? In fact, the boy is unemployed, bored and restless. He could use an escape … and doesn’t realize such escape is even possible.
100 Random Books
I like to believe that 100 random books would open up a new world for this boy, but the cynic in me predicts disappointment. You can’t pick up 100 books at random and suddenly expect your world to change. First, you have to be ready to occupy another person’s point of view. Even nonreaders have some ability to lose themselves in TV shows or movies; (my bookstore-visiting friend who never read anything certainly watches Netflix films). But current dramatic genres take you back only so far. Jane Austen? Forget about it … unless Emma Thompson stars in it. Cervantes, Ovid, Boccaccio. How do you depict Zeus and Europa in a Hollywood production without awful Cat-in-the-Hat live action or Disney-blandification? “Sorry, Zeus, your antics aren’t testing too well in the heartland. The studio has decided to pass.” (Maybe he could be a guest star in a future South Park episode with John Lithgow doing voiceover?)
Many book stories are inherently unfilmable. Or maybe they can be adapted, but they don’t capture the internal thought processes or perspective of the protagonist. Or maybe the predominance of televised genres today emphasize or de-emphasize certain modes of living. A society comfortable with watching Time-Warner’s lavishly-decorated Sex in the City is also comfortable watching CNN’s lavish presentation of the Iraqi War as a high-ratings media extravaganza (there are even fancy
cartoons military graphics to accompany the shock-and-awe pageantry). An individual who reads will see the world differently…he can imagine stories and dramatic situations without needing celebrity eye candy or lovely NY apartments to prettify the vision. When reading, you tend to compare your own thoughts with that of the character in the fictional world. How are Proust’s thought processes different from your own? How are Ben Franklin’s practical thoughts about living any different from your own? But with dramatic forms, the sympathy is external. When you watch a movie or TV show, you are prone to admire Carrie Bradshaw’s taste in shoes or Pixar’s rendering of the Paris sewers in the rat movie. You observe, you pity, but you do not truly immerse yourself (or compete with) the character’s state of mind.
As a writer and literary nut, I am embarrassed to meet educated-but-nonbookish people who read more than I do. A flutist friend reads tons of classics for her bookclub; a stay-at-home mom reads feminist sci-fi; an old boss keeps a stack of mysteries or thrillers on his desk. I often do not recognize the titles or even the genres they rave about. Last weekend at a social function I talked to a pediatrician who was a Jane Austen fan. Lots of Jane Austen fanatics are out there (not a surprise), but the pediatrician was overflowing with biographical details and critical insights from sustained reading. As thrilled as I was to meet a Bona Fide Reader, it also made me feel small; after all, I hardly spent free hours perusing books about the measles.
The Point of Reading
The doctor and the flutist are readers; they are used to putting themselves into other people’s lives and turning their backs on commercial forms of entertainment. Maybe mutual tastes in books do lead to romance in college; Reading is mandatory for the college experience; if college students were required to learn Urdu or python programming, these subjects could become the basis for flirtation as well. (See Note #2). Over time, reading becomes less useful for establishing personal connections than helping the individual to explore his own thoughts and values. I just finished Remarque’s remarkable novel of postwar romance called Three Comrades. I doubt I will meet anyone in meatspace who has enjoyed the novel–much less has heard of it. That is not important. You are totally missing the point.
As I read Remarque’s book, I start reflecting. Did I share the narrator’s cynicism about love and ambition? Were the narrator’s mundane enjoyments (drinking with buddies, joy riding, etc) the only honest pleasures in life? (The protagonist remarks, “The smell of coffee made me more cheerful. I knew that from the war; it was never the big things that consoled one — it was always the unimportant, little things.”) Was the narrator’s giddiness about finding a girl justified (or was it setting himself up for disappointment)? Do personal traumas (like fighting in a war) brutalize the individual’s soul..or make him better able to handle future travails? It is a deeply cynical novel….no wait, it is an honest portrayal of love’s decline. Does the protagonist find reason for hope at the end? This book is not a glitzy tragedy; there are no Shakespearian conflicts or heroes (except the ordinary heroism of a person willing to suffer for the sake of his beloved). There are two scenes where the protagonist makes long journeys by car to bring his girlfriend to the sanitarium. It all seems so futile. (Would I –or anyone else–have done the same thing?) Did the story pass judgment on its characters? Was it overly sentimental or not sentimental enough? Did I believe any person could go through life as jaded as the protagonist..and still manage to be happy? I cannot say whether I loved this novel or found any great insights from it. I just don’t know. I have finished the last page, but the journey is not over. I am still wondering, going over various scenes in my head, trying to decide if the novel rings of truth or falsehood. Remarque’s narrator says:
It was the melancholy secret that reality can arouse desires but never satisfy them; that love begins with a human being but does not end in him; and that everything can be there; a human being, love, happiness, life — yet in some terrible way it is always insufficient, even as it grows.
Note #1: I will now blithely dismiss any author who blithely dismisses Kundera’s ULOB. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Kundera, so for a few years I behaved like the world’s expert on the subject. While taking writing workshops at JHU, I quoted Kundera’s Art of the Novel so often that it became almost a classroom jokes; later, after being fired by Rice University for sending a satirical letter to its library, I found parallels with the protagonist in Kundera’s The Joke–who is sentenced to several years of hard labor after sending a joke postcard to his girlfriend). Kundera already understood what modern practitioners of the novel did not: you could use the novel to present complex metaphysical ideas to ordinary readers by segmenting themes into dozens of miniature stories. Kundera’s novels ( especially his latest novel, Ignorance) are full of paradoxes. He used the social upheavals of communism as a counterpoint to personal themes… but what happens when communism disappears? He used erotic themes to engage a broad swathe of readers… but what happens when the author is 70 years old and past his sexual prime? He used his own exile from Czechoslovakia as a metaphor for the boundaries that exist between people (Kundera, like Kadare and Gao Xingjian were exiles living in Paris, probably drinking at the same cafes). But what happens when travel restrictions are lifted… and you can go home any time you want? Interesting and profound themes, Mr. Collins. Hardly “bogus metaphysics.”
Note #2: Classical scholar John Finley once said, “the only purpose of a college education is to reduce the time spent thinking about the opposite sex from 80% to 60%.”