A few months ago, on the New York Times book-blog Paper Cuts, over 400 people reported what they believed to be their own personal "literary dealbreakers." In a followup article ("Love Me, Love My Books"), Molly Flatt described the "dealbreaker book" as follows: "This book so deeply resonates with your soul that if a potential partner finds it risible, any meeting of minds (or body) is all but impossible. "
For bibliophiles, books are profoundly significant, and terribly under-acknowledged, factors in the making or breaking of relationships. I'm guessing that many of us are somewhat clandestine about our scoping-out of others on the basis of their literary tastes, but I can always spot a fellow bibliophile when, upon entering my apartment, s/he slowly gravitates toward my bookshelves and tries to appear indifferent while perusing the titles. I know, of course, that what this stealth creature is doing, in fact, is slowly and carefully cataloguing my tastes, measuring my educational level and cultural sophistication, piecing-togather a preliminary psychological profile and, of course, searching for evidence of his or her "literary dealbreakers" somwehere on the shelf. I know this is what the bibliophile is doing because, well, that's what I do.
It's much easier, I think, to identify the books that instantly indicate compatibility between yourself and someone else than it is to identify the ones that are prophets of relationship doom. For me, the deal-sealers are many and varied: Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Philip Roth, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Milan Kundera, most existentialists, and non-fiction that is quirky, political, and timely. On the other side, though, I think that I mostly identify deal-breakers by genre rather than individual titles. Any form of "beat generation" literature is out (bye-bye to Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Borroughs). Also out is sci-fi, magical realism and fantasy (no Anne Rice, no Harry Potter, no Hitchhiker's Guide). Anything that has any number of "steps," "principles," or "secrets" as a part of the title, especially if those are directed at "self-improvement," "financial security" or "management success," is definitely a bad sign. And too much medieval stuff is a red flag (sorry Boethius, Dante and Chaucer).
If I absolutely had to identify specific deal-breakers, though, there are a few candidates that would definitely make the cut. I don't think I could bear someone telling me that his or her favorite book is Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind . Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet would probably be taken as a bad sign by me as well. And, as a rule, I usually question the sincerity of anyone who says his or her favorite book is David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest or Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time-- not because I don't love Wallace and Proust, but just because I would seriously doubt that the person actually finished them. In almost every case, I think, the people who cite those as their favorite books are pretenders, not real readers.
Another deal-breaker for me is the presence of too many "show" books-- the ones with still-pristine, unbroken spines that are obviously unread. The more a person's books show signs of being "handled," the better. Extra points for books filled with scribbled marginalia or with dog-eared pages. And extra, extra points if there is some organization to the bookshelves, alphabetical or otherwise.
Ahhhhh, the mysterious ways of nerds in love.