Some years ago, I was awakened early one morning by a phone call from a friend. She had just broken up with a boyfriend she still loved and was desperate to justify her decision. “Can you believe it!” she shouted into the phone. “He hadn’t even heard of Pushkin!”
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.
Pity the would-be Romeo who earnestly confesses middlebrow tastes: sometimes, it’s the Howard Roark problem as much as the Pushkin one. “I did have to break up with one guy because he was very keen on Ayn Rand,” said Laura Miller, a book critic for Salon. “He was sweet and incredibly decent despite all the grandiosely heartless ‘philosophy’ he espoused.” (Members of theatlasphere.com, a dating and fan site for devotees of “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead,” might disagree.)
Judy Heiblum, a literary agent at Sterling Lord Literistic, shudders at the memory of some attempted date-talk about Robert Pirsig’s 1974 cult classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” beloved of searching young men. “When a guy tells me it changed his life, I wish he’d saved us both the embarrassment,”
Let’s face it — this may be a gender issue. Brainy women are probably more sensitive to literary deal breakers than are brainy men. (Rare is the guy who’d throw a pretty girl out of bed for revealing her imperfect taste in books.)
Still, to some reading men, literary taste does matter. “I’ve broken up with girls saying, ‘She doesn’t read, we had nothing to talk about,’” said Christian Lorentzen, an editor at Harper’s.
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.
Naming a favorite book or author can be fraught. Go too low, and you risk looking dumb. Go too high, and you risk looking like a bore — or a phony.
But how much of all this agonizing is really about the books? Often, divergent literary taste is a shorthand for other problems or defenses. “I had a boyfriend I was crazy about, and it didn’t work out,” Nora Ephron said. “Twenty-five years later he accused me of not having laughed while reading ‘Candy’ by Terry Southern.
Some people just prefer to compartmentalize. Ariel Levy says that when she wants to talk about books, she goes to her book group. Compatibility in reading taste is a “luxury” and kind of irrelevant.
Marco Roth, an editor at the magazine n+1, said: “I think sometimes it’s better if books are just books. It’s part of the romantic tragedy of our age that our partners must be seen as compatible on every level.” Besides, he added, “sometimes people can end up liking the same things for vastly different reasons, and they build up these whole private fantasy lives around the meaning of these supposedly shared books, only to discover, too late, that the other person had a different fantasy completely.”
Excerpted from The New York Time Sunday Book Review article by Rachel Donadio, March 30, 2008.