One friend who recently broke up with her boyfriend looked at the books he left behind on their shared bookshelf, which included Frida Kahlo’s diary and Salt by Nayyirah Waheed. “If I was going home with him now,” she told me, “these books would definitely tell me that he’s a thoughtful man who values reading books by women and people of color, and writing that’s also not Anglo-centric. I’d be super attracted to that.” As she explained, “I know that even though he’s willing, even sometimes interested, in reading writing by women,” after their breakup she realized that it’s “male writers who have shaped his worldview most.”
A friend who found herself newly single after a long-term relationship recently went home with a guy who was reading Finding Your Flow, a self-help book one might find at a boutique yoga studio. While she initially saw it as silly reading material, she later wondered if this was an unfair judgement. If she had found a Kindle queued up with something more rigorous and less corporate word-garbage, would she be more interested? Is there necessarily a correlation between which books straight guys read and how feminist their politics are?
The Maggie Nelson reader, as it turns out, was gifted the book by his sister’s girlfriend, a fact that only endeared him to me more. (He values the literary tastes of smart queer women and is close to his sibling’s partner. Quite the feminist turn-on!) I want to date someone who values vulnerability and self-exploration and a softer shade of masculinity; unfortunately, I didn’t get to know the Maggie Nelson boy well enough to learn whether we share these values or whether my impression of him was shortsighted, but I suspect the former.
There’s a perverse sort of pleasure that comes from glimpsing a near-stranger’s bookshelf and finding clues about their recurring thought patterns. While an unreliable predictor of a relationship’s outcome, one’s bookshelf can certainly point to the voices, stories, and struggles a person feels compelled to consider.
While an unreliable predictor of a relationship’s outcome, one’s bookshelf can certainly point to the voices, stories, and struggles a person feels compelled to consider.
Next to my bed there are unread galleys that, if found, might lead a bedmate to wrongly believe I’m obsessed with the year 1913, the French Revolution, and gangster culture in 1930s Arkansas. But these books were sent to me, unsolicited, from publishing houses, and I have no intention to review them (or read them, for that matter).
My nightstand isn’t exactly a mirror image of my mental landscape, but it’s not a meaningless Pinterest board of aesthetics, either. I’ve had many false starts with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and while engaged in other reading about mass incarceration, would be embarrassed to admit to a bed partner that I’ve never made it past the first chapter. Likewise, the copy of Renata Adler’s Speedboat is more aspirational reading than real. If a new partner was unfamiliar with these titles, he might think they’re stuffy academic reads. But if said partner knew that the content of Alexander’s book is about mass incarceration and racial justice work, he might have a different impression of me.
After my cross-continental move, I started dating a guy who had never heard of Joan Didion before—and yet, he still piqued my interest. He’s unpretentious and sweet, and when I started reading a Sheila Heti book he didn’t pretend to know who she is but asked in earnest. Right now he’s reading a book on evolution (by a male writer, joy!) and a guide to home brewing. We have yet to find any overlaps in our literary interests, but this probably says more about our differing backgrounds than our political leanings. (I went to a liberal arts school where the most sought-after classes were on feminist philosophy and race relations in America; he studied engineering at an agrarian school that offered courses on viticulture.)
Literary preferences don’t provide a clear window into someone’s mind, but instead a crack in that window—which can uncover both ambient curiosities and deep-seated preoccupations. To judge a new partner by the sum of their book spines is to try and anticipate how the relationship might shake out—to fool oneself into believing one person alone can control its outcome. As if people are uncomplicated and their worldviews are not riddled with contradictions; as if any one point of view is reducible to a four-word title or slapdash cultural reference. A new partner’s reading habits might reveal how rad their politics are, yes, but can also lead to lazy and misguided judgments.