Sunday, August 31, 2008

It's not you. It's your library...

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.


anotherpanacea said...

Well, I'm guess I'm not your type. My shelves have a good share of magical realism and science fiction, and for a while before grad school, Infinite Jest was my favorite book. On the other hand, I organize my philosophy books historically and then 20th-and-21st Century stuff is organized thematically.

That said, I've long believed that the eligible singles market could be divided into those who read and understood Foucault's History of Sexuality and those who have not. The two groups may well enjoy short-term escapades bridging the divide, but there can be no monogamy between them.

John said...

Very interesting elaboration of reading and books as the "concentric rings" of a soul, and the relegation of some books to the outer edges, or entirely into the mind's trashbin.

As for me, I become discouraged to hear that Dante is shunned, and absolutely devastated and crestfallen to hear magical realism grouped with sci-fi and fantasy. (What about the librarian himself, Borges??)

And (sad biographical note) the last book I purchased was Lawrence Ferlinghetti's A Coney Island of the Mind.

It is too much to bear!

Rob said...

so absolutely correct in your assessment. I also look for Deleuze and Henry Miller.

Deal breakers:

I search out contradictions, i.e., a bookshelf that contains both something like "Men Are From Mars And Women Are From Venus" along with "Difference and Repetition".

Oh and my biggest deal breaker is a book on the art of Klimp; there is nothing so bourgeois.

DOCTOR J said...

Sorry AnPan and John. Guess it just wasn't meant to be!

Rob, do you mean Klimt? If so, I totally agree.

Shep T. said...

So I like the description of the behavior of the book peruser. I remember doing this at your place, and also I remember I liked what I saw.

Ursula Le Guin is sci fi. If you haven't, check "The Left Hand of Darkness" and "The dispossessed," novels about sexuality and political power that straight rock.

I don't care for magic realism. Still, I'm worried about the negative deal breakers. What if you see my book shelf, and I have something on it that I haven't read yet, that someone told me was good, but I won't like it once I read it and I'll take it back, but I don't know that, and you don't, and then you won't be my friend or anything, because of a book I never read? That would be horrible.

Chet said...

Would you go so far as to say, "it's not what you are like, but what you like," as would the protagonist of "High Fidelity"? Or would the latter fall into the sci-fi, or better lad-lit camp (actually, I've never read the book)?

Kyle used to get pissed when I would come over to his place and start scoping out his books, so I appreciated the "trying to appear disinterested comment." Alexi, for example, comes over and just stares like a forlorn child.

Although I haven't read him, I always wonder when I see Santanyana on a bookshelf. Generally I agree about the Beats (sorry Mike Dittman). But I would throw H. Miller into that camp. I think of him now primarily as a Grove Press writer and that helps.

Lately I've gotten into reading books according to the publishing house. Right now I'm addicted to the NYRB press.

Good post. You've been writing a lot this summer about literacy, you know.

DOCTOR J said...

I should have also listed Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Total deal-breaker.

CBR said...

I don't see how anything on someone's shelf could be a deal-breaker, since they might not have read it or might not like it. A pattern or trend would be the deal-breaker.

Kite Runner is a bad sign. Stephen King is a bad sign. But going by genre strikes me as a flawed method. HP Lovecraft or Robert E Howard is a very good sign, whereas Tolkien or the aforementioned King not so good (even though Tolkien's probably not that bad, if I can even remember, he's still a bad sign).

I have all the authors you mentioned as good signs, but for me they are not necessarily good signs. I'd like someone to have some or most of that stuff, but then they'd have to have other stuff to mitigate it. A really bad sign for me is someone with all high-brow stuff, because it suggests that they don't really love reading, but are sort of pretentious dicks. So some sci-fi or something like that needs to be salted in there.

christophresh said...

I currently have my books sorted- by color.
That includes the philosophy.
Except the texts I am currently working with. They are radically unsorted.