Yesterday, the New York Times published an amusing piece about how books impact romance.
They start off with a story reference, something we can probably all relate to and have experienced at least once in our lives. A woman breaks up with her boyfriend exclaiming to her friend, “can you believe it! he hadn’t even heard of Pushkin!”
I remember going on a date with a director at Intel once and he pronounced Renoir (renooore) and thought he was a writer. I remember thinking at the time, “is this for real? didn’t he say that he went to Stanford, how is this possible?” Stanford isn’t Europe baby and while we certainly have some of the top business and engineering schools in the world, the arts are not cherished in the same way they are in Europe. It isn’t a “must learn,” or even more importantly a “must care about.”
The article talks about how listing your favorite books on Facebook, MySpace and other social networks are “crucial” for connecting with others, particularly for dating. I have a bunch of books listed on Facebook, but because I love literature, not because I want a ‘man to think I’m smart,” but then again, I don’t use these sites for dating purposes, and frankly, never have.
Many years ago, a man who was interested in me romantically came to my Boston flat, and started sifting through my bookshelf. He wasn’t an academic but he may as well have been. A part time writer (a serious one), he looked up at me and smiled as he held three books in his hands, all of which were sitting next to each other: Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
“Classic you, in such conflict with your multiple personalities,” he said with a grin.
In conflict? Just because I have a hunger for multiple voices, I had a conflict with supposedly ‘serious literature’ like Tolstoy and my personal fulfillment books on feng shui, spirituality and nature, holistic health and yes, even crystals. If you’ve gone to the Holy Land, Greece, northern California or Sedona among multiple other places, you’re bound to pick up a book about crystals.
And as for books on personal development and relationships? Ten years ago, they were classified as ‘self-help’ books and there was a stigma if you had too many lying around. Many men would go through a divorce before they’d pick up one of those books or see a therapist.
The piece points out that reading habits can be a rough indicator of other qualities, speaking to “class and educational level.” True enough, and like everyone with censors (we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t have them), I make a connection to someone’s early years and current lifestyle when I look through a person’s bookshelf.
For me, it certainly isn’t to get an indicator to their social, economic and educational levels. Frankly, I care less. What I look for are the stories they have read, some of which have shaped them in the same way they shaped me and some not. And this is what is crucial to learn. Why? It tells you about their heart and how they look at the world.
I’ve been in book groups for years and in multiple countries. Some people in my group loved fantasy novels, others were addicted to biographies, a couple would only read women authors and so on. Such diversity. It’s what I love about being part of a reading group.
One such New England gathering had guests from out of town who were not part of the regular monthly group. (a couple from England, a Mormon product manager from Utah, a woman who had been sexually abused by her brother and father and a black Australian — talk about a wealth of perspective to enrich our conversation). There were so many heated discussions over issues raised in books that I’ve thought on more than one occasion, a book was going to fly through my living room window.
One issue that nearly had me driving to the glass shop? Unions. A guy who came from an Italian catholic family in a small Massachusetts town was pro-unions and the opposite view came from a guy from Connecticut although he lived most of his life in various countries around the world as an expat.
Their life paths.
That said, there are still a few cases where I just can’t figure out the patterns. Most of the novels I really connect to in a big way exude empathy and heart.
A few books I’ve read and loved but stood nearly isolated inside the walls of my book group include Mario Puzo’s The Family, Martel’s Life of Pi, Diamant’s The Red Tent, and nearly all of Andre Brink’s novels.
They also suggest that most men don’t read and ‘rarely will a man throw a woman out for her poor literary tastes.’ What I find interesting is that this is truer the further west you travel. When I hung out in eastern Europe, nearly ever man I met read.
The same was true when I lived in England, Holland and Austria. The number decreased when I moved back to the states, but it is probably double in east coast urban areas (New York and Boston) than what I’ve discovered here (San Francisco, LA).
They recount another story of a man who was “infatuated with a woman who had a copy of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” on her bedside table. I do too – its one of my favorite novels and movies. I wonder if the same man would think that all women who loved that book had sex wearing a bowler hat and was into bogus metaphysics.
It’s amazing the connections and conclusions we draw, and the decisions we make in our lives based on an artistic reference, a movie, one lonely statement or yes, someone’s bookshelf. The key is to not judge people by the books on their shelves but to look at them as a fascinating resume of lots of amazing things to talk about and learn.