INT. TRAIN -- AFTERNOON
The Eurail rolls along. Inside, passengers sleep, read, and stare out the window. A few walk up and down the aisle. CELINE, a young woman in her mid-twenties, is curled up in her seat reading George Bataille's Story of the Eye... Sitting four rows back and on the other side of the aisle, JESSE, also mid-twenties, is engrossed in Klaus Kinski's memoir, All I Need Is Love...
You may remember this as the opening of Before Sunrise (screenplay by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke). What I like about what follows is how -- typical of the entire film's sensibility -- the obvious aspect of the set-up is willfully ignored. Celine and Jesse do start up a conversation, but it's triggered by an arguing couple stalking out of the train car, and when our heroine and hero compare books... neither has much to say about either title, and the dialogue moves on.
Nonetheless, Linklater & co. were at least acknowledging that in an encounter between strangers of the opposite sex, next to clothing and accessories (including perhaps slogans on t-shirts), nothing serves as a better shorthand indicator of character -- or offers a better opening --than choice of reading material.
Over a year ago I posted a piece here about encountering a woman in the gym whose choice of reading matter short-circuited any thoughts I might have had of flirting with her. The question I asked of readers then was, what books would they consider turn-offs?
Recently, reader Grieg brought this article from the Guardian to my attention, which goes at the same issue from the opposite end.
According to a survey of over 2,000 adults carried out by internet pollsters YouGov for Borders bookstore, books play a crucial role in influencing our opinions of strangers. Half of those asked admitted that they would look again or smile at someone on the basis of what they were reading...
Not only does sitting with your nose in a book positively influence others' opinion of you, it could actually - get this - lead to sex. A third of those surveyed said that they "would consider flirting with someone based on their choice of literature". It's finally official, people. Reading is hot.
But before you trip off to the park clad in your most fetching sun hat and clutching your copy of the latest Jilly Cooper - be warned. Not just any book will do...
Indeed. And actually, while the article itself is amusing, the real fun can be found in the lively discourse that follows it, as some very disparate people make their wildly all-over-the-map (and of course, revealingly personal) choices for what constitutes an arousing title. In some cases, you get a kind of plaintive snapshot of the lovelorn, such as this from chris1984:
any girl reading kafka or beckett or dostoevsky...but the day will never come.
Chris1984, you missed me reading Kafka a couple of months ago, but it wouldn't have worked between us because I thought it - and bloody Kafka himself - was miserable and life denying. Am back reading Irish non-fiction and having more of a laugh.
Eightball provides a real-life cute meet (resolution unknown):
I pointed out to 2 strangers standing side by side on the tube that they were both reading the same book, 'Down and Out in Paris and London'. Hopefully that led to romance, she was beautiful. And a lesser known book by the author of several classics has obvious pulling power.
You know what would be love at first sight? Someone (attractive) tossing [The Da Vinci Code] out of the window. Or getting up to stamp on it. Something to illustrate their hatred on a grand scale. More generally, I love checking to see what people are reading. If I can't get a look, I've been known to follow the person until I catch a glimpse. Maybe I shouldn't admit to that.
Inevitably, there are exchanges like this -- Joana giving a thick para of specifics...
Some books which would make me sit up and take notice: anything by Murakami; any Ishiguro after (and including) The Unconsoled, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer...
Joana: you've pretty much summarised my literary tastes. what are you doing this weekend?
A query from Oscolai:
How about those of us who get queasy reading on public transport? Are we doomed?
I have no wish to make eye contact with judgemental pseuds lusting after my book choice. All I want is a bit of quiet time to read something that interests me. Anyone approaching me while I read on the tube will therefore be thumped soundly with whatever book I am reading, so I advise you to try me when it's poetry - there's less damage to be taken from a slim volume.
So, does anyone have any suggestions for potentially useful opening conversation lines for bookflirters?
And gets one good answer from finishedfortheday:
'Is that a DeLillo in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?'
Alright, Americans (and all other nationalities including Brits who missed the Guardian issue): what book -- in the hands of a perfect/imperfect stranger in a public place -- would cause you to make a wannabe-lover's leap? Living RomCom wants to know.