Monday, May 05, 2008

the wise exercise of prejudice

A look at the conversation on a mailing list to which I belong reminded me of a much-talked about essay on Love and Literary Taste in the NY Times last month, It's Not You, It's Your Books. The Guardian did a blog along similar lines a year or so ago, I Bet You Look Great In The Bookstore, which was about reading matter being one of the first things people notice about others in public.

The Guardian blog is lighthearted and amusing, even if the long and lively comment thread has its share of people going 'I read Kafka' and 'I read Murakami' - congratulations, those should garner you shags aplenty - while the NY Times essay is odious, and more than a little sexist, like all their trend writing is. The essay ends on the note that while all this talk about books is in good fun, it would be more than a little shallow to break up with someone over literary taste.

I think talk about literary taste is in itself a somewhat uncivil practice. Three months of breathing the air of a city with something akin to a literary culture have, perversely enough, given me a renewed appreciation for what people do with their minds out of the hard grind of honest toil. I myself take recourse to Bollywood radio and a steaming mug of milken tea. But the whole idea of a continuum of literary taste, with Dan Brown scraping the bottom of the barrel and, I don't know, James Joyce (?) as the Holy Grail is so fake. Taste is not supposed to be discrete and defined. The broader the spectrum of discrimination, the happier you are, surely. Lists of favourite books and favourite films are a useful tool for people whose primary mode of interaction is Facebook [or, indeed, Blogger -- would you love me if you had any reason to doubt I was a Juventus fan, for example? I thought not.], but surely an adult will be able to suss out the measure of a man before needing to ask whether said man enjoys Kafka and Murakami. I mean, surely, comrades, SURELY, the crux of the matter is not what you love, but how you love it.

[Whence the argument obliquely runs back to the general idea of Dan Brown inspiring a false and fickle love, whilst Joyce engenders a deep and abiding passion, but I feel that this is descending into realms of the anecdotal.]

I have my prejudices, like everyone else, but they run exactly the opposite. I would be disinclined to enjoy the favourites of someone whose company had the palling effect on me. I put people before ideas. If a man were to approach me extolling the virtues of Chuck Palahniuk and Irvine Welsh above all others I would think his intellect brittle, I admit. Then again, if this man were Paul Bettany I would probably go 'mmhmm, ahaa, junkie man-pain, so totally all over it' before flinging myself at him. I know my limits.


  1. I quite agree about the NY Times article being odious. And infact, like a lot of their 'trend' articles, they managed to go overboard and kill a pretty decent idea. I think the key why reading preferences point to a potential mate/friend is that books are an indication of how your mind has grown and how much it has grown and perhaps what phase of a life you are in. It is not a question of Dan Brown or Dante. Of course, reading preferences alone can/should never be a deal breaker. But then trust the Americans to carry everything to the extreme.

    p.s. thanks for the guardian article. had not read that one and they really do a much better job!

  2. I've always found myself unable to answer questions like "So what do you like to read?" I am never quite sure what my answer is supposed to be. And never mind the tremendous discomfort I experience when I end up with something usually categorized as "pop fiction" on a flight. The looks some of the others give me is enough to kill me on the spot.

  3. And never mind the tremendous discomfort I experience when I end up with something usually categorized as "pop fiction" on a flight
    But that's the best thing to do! Walk around with a really daft book and watch everybody smirk at you, while you smirk inwardly at the fact that they're so stupid as to attempt to judge you by what book you're carrying.

    I take it you're bored of the IPL and have seen all the new films, hence the post-glut?

  4. @ anita: The NYTimes articles, I can't decide if they're over pleased with themselves, which is why they all outlast their essential usefulness by about 1300 words, or if they're cold-hearted attempts to fill space in between ads for jewellery and iPods.

    perhaps what phase of a life you are in

    I agree. It's possible to have an absolutely delightful conversation with someone about Brown and be bored stiff by someone's experience with Dante.

    @ neha: I know what you mean. It's easy for me to come up with a list for Facebook, but to be asked the question point blank is very disorienting.

    And I can't believe the number of people who persevere wih bad literary fiction on flights, either! The intellectual protectionism that kulchah gives to its "literary" writers is shocking. There's a lot of bad pop fic out there, but there's a lot of terrible literary fiction too, and people who judge otherwise are, in my humble but correct opinion, wrong.

    @ ??!" I know I write about it on the other blog, but really, Im boycotting the IPL. And I've been suffering a sprained ankle for the past few weeks, so new films have been unseen. Can you imagine this? I haven't seen Tashan yet. My life is going off the rails.

  5. Hooray for the boycott, sympathies for the ankle. Still, at least you've got a good excuse to go out in that heat.

  6. "not to", not "to".

    ...that's the third time I've made the very mistake, while commenting on blogs, in the past four days. It's starting to freak me out.

  7. Ankle is still bad? Oh no. Obviously as a nurse I am made of fail.

    I prefer to force my literary tastes on prospective mates after they're already too deeply into the relationship to back out. Far more productive.

    (I gave Aadisht a copy of Cold Comfort Farm! He has read it and is very pleased - he laughed and awwwwed at the right places.)

  8. i agree. favouritizing books is a rather futile activity. in a certain way, it admits for the reader he hasn't grown since whenever.