Wednesday 23 September 2009

You Are What You Eat II

The extent to which we believe that our reading habits reflect something core about our self, our personality, preferences and intelligence, was recently highlighted during the U.S. President’s recent vacation. A number of news outlets, including CNN and the New York Times, reported on President Obama’s Summer reading list with more than a passing interest. Mr. Obama brought along 5 books for his brief vacation at Martha’s Vineyard, and what these book choices reflected with respect to Mr. Obama’s current mindset and lifelong disposition was the topic of much discussion and speculation.

Those of us who experience substantially less concentrated media attention nevertheless are often subject to the same scrutiny. Who among us has not raised an eyebrow at the title poking out of an acquaintance’s bag, or found our interest in a stranger suddenly piqued when we notice the book he or she is reading on the subway. We tend to like those who are similar to us, who share our excellent taste, so it should not be too surprising that a bookstore in New York City has begun a dating service based on book preferences. For some, “what are you reading right now,” pops out of the mouth as easily and as frequently as “How are you doing?” Much like the question that supplants a more typical greeting among Jungian psychoanalysts: “Did you dream last night?

The bookstore dating service began when a friend of the owner spotted two books lying together behind the counter and immediately exclaimed, “‘tell me those are for the same guy, and please tell me he’s single!” When I was young, I remember being endlessly curious about the people who had taken a book out of the library before me. I would always pick the circulation card from of its snug manila pocket and peek at the previous borrowers. When was the book taken out last? What did the person’s signature look like? This is one of the things I miss about circulation cards, that fragile tie to the strangers who share our love of certain books.

By the way, for the many who I am sure are curious, the books Mr. Obama chose to carry with him on vacation are:

“The Way Home,” by George Pelecanos.

“Hot, Flat and Crowded,” by Thomas L. Friedman.

“Lush Life,” by Richard Price.

“Plainsong,” by Kent Haruf.

“John Adams,” by David McCullough.

I'll leave the interpretation up to you.


Jared Stein said...

The humorous part of this is, as some commentators have noted, Mr. Obama must be either a terribly slow reader or he's trying really hard to make a point, as he quoted from the same Friedman book in a 2008 speech, and it was reportedly "on his nightstand" during the campaign.

Raymond A. Mar said...

Yes, I did read that as well. My own hunch is that it's the latter. You can bet that the content of his Summer reading list was as carefully designed as any other political missive.

Incidentally, the BBC has a related article on what our bookcases say about us:

Melwyk said...

I recognize that immediate connection to other readers, and really enjoyed your evocation of the old library card as a connection to previous readers. While I am very glad that my library no longer uses that labour intensive system, there is a certain nostalgia for the physical record.

Raymond A. Mar said...

Absolutely. As physical objects get rarer and rarer it's nice to revisit them and the details they provide above and beyond the zeros and ones. Thanks for your comment Melwyk.

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