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Bookwinked into Bed

Ever lied about your reading prowess just for sex? Many, it seems, have.

By Shannon Rupp 8 Apr 2008 |

Shannon Rupp is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Read her previous columns here.

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Studying up: a true booklover?

Despair over the decline of the written word was at an all-time low last week as an essay in the New York Times revealed that reading, or at least understanding the secret language of literature, is still a popular activity -- if only as a mating strategy.

In "It's Not You, It's Your Books," Rachel Donadio reveals that bibliophiles judge potential mates by their reading material, which is hardly earth-shattering. But the subsequent chatter about the piece is a bit of an eye-opener.

While women are more likely to use a man's bookshelf as an insight into his soul -- or a dating deal-breaker -- men, I've learned, are more likely to lie about their reading habits in order to pick up the unwary booklover. Ironically, the Times piece serves as a cheat sheet for the illiterate man.

On a subconscious level I must have always known this was going on. I once suggested that book publishers improve cash flow with hook-up sites based on literary tastes -- but I was half joking. (The other half is now yelling in my ear that I could have been rich.)

Using a booklist to divine a man's character seems no worse than rating his shoes -- which many women swear is infallible -- and it may be better. A meeting of minds as a prelude to a meeting of . . . well, it just seems more authentic. Or so I thought, until I saw male reaction to the Times piece and discussed it with a few of my well-read men friends who began reminiscing about how knowing what was between the covers got them between the covers.

A fellow scribe, whose insightful views and well-crafted prose never fail to make me wish I could write half so well, tells me there's a poem that makes women go weak at the knees.

"I recite it from memory. Works every time. I won't divulge it, because to do so would be ungallant," he said, promising to tell me at some future date on the condition I keep the powerful secret to myself.

Do I want to know? Hell yes, if only for self-preservation.

Mr. Poetry is the only one who tells me that in his idealistic youth he turned down a beauty because of the lowly calibre of her library. Of course, he admits he later regretted his snobbery. "I'm positively melancholy just thinking about it now . . . "

Manufacturing consent

But I have it on good authority that it's unlikely most men would kick some hottie out of bed because she shows an unsavoury interest in Harlequins. My informant's particular weapon on the romantic battlefield is the literary novel.

"If I find Captain Corelli's Mandolin on a woman's bookshelf, I'm putty in her hands," he swears, noting that that confession has worked for him more than once. (Not being a fan of Louis de Bernieres, I'm a tad mystified by this. And when I asked if he'd even read the book, I got no answer -- just a Cheshire cat grin. )

An editor pal credits his knowledge of Noam Chomsky (who'd-a-thunkit?) with kick-starting a romance that lasted a year. Apparently, he fell to talking about Manufacturing Consent with a woman he ought to have been dancing with -- speaking of deal breaking behaviour. Yet, she rang him the next day and asked him out, noting that she wasn't going let someone who read Chomsky get away. (The kicker: He hadn't read the book, but had heard a Chomsky lecture and, being a journo, talked a good line.)

"Tom Robbins' Still Life with Woodpecker got me laid by three different women," another of my pals recalled, nostalgically, after reading the Times piece. He was young when the book came out in 1980, and Robbins' psychedelic sentences that twist-and-turn into surprising metaphors were a hit with undergrads.

While the first conquest was a surprise, he later turned the book into a pick-up line. He got positively misty-eyed as he recalled asking a redhead he met in a bar if she was a refugee from the planet Argon where the titian-haired villains owed their tresses to sugar and lust. (I assume he offered her both as he's a very gracious man). It sent him on a lifelong quest for books that hooked his kind of woman. He later seduced radical environmentalists with his love of Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang.

Those bitter, lonely guys who insist that women are shallow creatures who prefer tall men with fat wallets and fast cars should take note. Forget about leasing a Porsche; try faking knowledge of the Brontes.


While we were on the subject, one pal admitted to taking a shine to a Jane Austen scholar but he can't bring himself to read the witty18th-century novelist in order to seal the deal. Sadly, he has been misled about her work courtesy of a tacky post-Austen industry determined to claim her as the originator of chicklit. So he came to me, formerly a card-carrying member of the JA Society, to provide him with a crib sheet.

I was shocked: this literary lothario was engaged in what could only be called bookwinking. Obviously, books are used as just another male strategy for getting into the gene pool, and brandishing book-smarts is just another form of courting display that is about as trustworthy as peacock plumage.

In perusing online comments it became clear that bookwinking is common. For every woman who dismisses a man for not knowing Pushkin, there are 10 men who have been literary poseurs. While it's generally agreed by those of all sexes that a fondness for the Da Vinci Code, Ayn Rand, Dianetics, The Secret, and anything by Ann Coulter or Eckhart Tolle will get you booted out of bed by most thinking singletons, women note that there are a few books that serve as a kind of code-speak that a man's taste in fiction is just that.

For example, beware any guy who claims Milan Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being on his reading list. He's trawling for casual sex.

Another warning sign is an alleged fondness for Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Apparently, it's the title-of-choice among men posing as sensitive guys.

High school English teachers take note

Not to be cynical, but if I were a high school English teacher, I would be circulating that Times piece about the seductive power of literature as way of persuading my hormonally-charged charges to crack a book. What better way to pry the boys, especially, away from World of Warcraft than by pointing out that Ian McEwan's work is an aphrodisiac while pretending to be a battle-scarred elf could get you cast in a Judd Apatow film.

For the sake of literacy, I'm even trying persuade my resourceful pals to take their tales of conquests-with-books on a high school tour. I envision a sort of variation on those Writers in the Classroom programs. Maybe call it something like The Triumph of Literacy.

Although the guys all got sentimental recalling their triumphs, my pals' tales of calculation and cunning made me shiver -- perhaps I'm naïve, but I would have thought they were above such sacrilege. Now that I really understand the secret language of literature, I'm putting my own stacks behind doors. And I've decided that for divining the character of a potential mate, nothing beats a good analysis of a man's shoes.