"IN LITERATURE AS IN LOVE," writes French author Andre Maurois, "we are astonished at what is chosen by others."
In last week's essay for the New York Times Book Review, "It's Not You, It's Your Books," Rachel Donadio explores the nexus of these two great obsessions--literature and love. Her premise--which has gotten a surprising amount of attention, including a stint on NPR's "Talk of the Nation"--is that literary taste can be a romantic deal breaker. Donadio weaves in and out of quotes from writers and readers who have ended relationships based on a romantic object's taste for distasteful writers (like Ayn Rand). According to Donadio, when the literary pieces of a relationship don't fit together, it could be an indicator that the entire relationship is itself a puzzle destined for incompleteness.
There is no question that in the world of Match.com (and even cooler sites like Salon/Nerve), who you like is often filtered through what you like. This is uber dreamy for book-o-philes for whom books are never just books but windows, signposts, flagpoles, EKGs--evidence of beauty, interest, loyalties, and intellectual activity.
For better or worse, other aspects of popular culture don't seem to share literature's promise of transcendence. In the book (and film version of) High Fidelity, music and musical tastes are a barometer for coolness, but it's unlikely Nick Hornby would be presumptuous enough to argue that preferring R.E.M. over Creed will ensure romantic bliss. Sure, indy film lovers and devotees of cinema bond over celluloid, but could adoring movies like Titanic or Forrest Gump really be enough to end a relationship? What about fans of reality TV?
Book lovers, however, are different; at least in terms of literature. Our society has fostered the assumption for some time now that good novels, poems, plays and essays transcend the commonplace, elevating their readers to a level of ethereal specialness. Whether it's true or not, such a stance is unabashedly romantic. Thus, when you marry the romance of books with the romance of romance, you arrive at a perfect storm of romance. Believe it or not, such a storm can often rain on the parade of actual love and day-to-day living.
Not long ago, two undergraduates in one of my classes fell in love with each other while we were reading Love in the Time of Cholera. They each loved the book so much, and they loved that each other loved the book. They believed, as many of us do, that the two loves are equal, interdependent, and eternal. The great dream for those who have fallen in love with books is that their mate will ultimately do for their lives what books have done--give it meaning, wholeness, reciprocity. We tend to think, whether it is realistic or not, that if one identifies or admires the values and qualities of a piece of literature, then s/he will likely embody (or seek to embody) those values and qualities. In short, they will become like the books they admire. But, as many of us have discovered, that rarely happens.
To wit, in the British author Alain de Botton's charming On Love: A Novel, the love-sick protagonist muses how his girlfriend who has such good taste in books can have such bad taste in shoes. He's shocked that someone whose aesthetic scale lines up with x can, at the same time, be drawn to y. Love, however, like literature, is anything but a formula. Or, put a different way, literary desires don't necessarily add up to romantic desires.
Much of the best literature is about enjoying the simple pleasures of love, the richness of family life, the emptiness of obsession, and the daily tedium made less tedious by the kindness of a partner or spouse. The love of good literature may not be much different than the love of triathlons, stamp collecting, bird watching, gardening, wine collecting or, for that matter, the love of bad books. What an avid reader tells us is what all of these other activities tell us--that the person is an engaged member of society, an active participant in the great big text that is this human world.
Doesn't mean you can't buy them of book of Wallace Stevens poems though . . .