When my mother and father met—early in their respective college careers—my father had established a gimmick for picking up girls, or at least for projecting a cool, intellectual image (which, to be fair, he owned): He carried around a copy of Martin Buber’s “I And Thou.” (His method proved effective, if my parents’ long marriage is any indicator.)
Years later, when I was in college, I was intrigued by my eventual boyfriend’s passion for Albert Camus’ “The Stranger.” (That may have been a red flag, come to think of it.) And, still later, my now husband captivated me by dissecting “The Iliad” (which he still does from time to time).
These days, perhaps a Philip Roth book, rare graphic novel or Jonathan Safran Foer haggadah would serve the same purpose. (So might the right esoteric concert t-shirt and limited-edition sneakers.) Clearly, regardless of the decade, a book has the power to endow its readers with qualities of intellectual rigor and even sense of humor. When we expose a book on our desk at work, throughout our subway commute or even during dinner discussions, we are conscious of its power to define and categorize us in other peoples’ eyes. For better or worse.
It’s not that we pretend to appreciate books that, in fact, we have not. Rather, there are books we are proud to have read and absorbed (don’t get me started on Italo Calvino’s “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler”), and books we only buy while wearing sunglasses and read under the cover of night or on an innocuous e-reader (see: my Jude Deveraux stash).
I, for one, am a hi-lo reader, for lack of a better term. Just as my wardrobe is equal parts Isabel Marant and TopShop (well, I wish), and my TV viewing ranges from “The Good Wife” to “Survivor,” I tend to alternate between genre fiction like mysteries and more critically-acclaimed “highbrow” reads. Even the books I write seem to straddle the commercial and literary. It makes sense: Juxtaposition is the nature of our entire culture these days. And I’m not sure one has more merit than another.