"Judging a Book by Its Lover: A Field Guide To The Hearts and Minds of Readers Everywhere" by Lauren Leto
Have you ever been to a literary event or maybe just a talk, perhaps at a Barnes and Noble, an independent bookstore, or even the 92nd Street Y, and the speaker will tell a little joke or read an amusing line not meant to elicit a huge amount of laughter, but just funny enough to make you snicker? And there’s always - always - that one guy (it’s usually a man but it theoretically could be a woman. This is equal opportunity, after all) who will laugh louder than everyone else so that everyone will know that he understood the little nuances of said joke, that he “got it” more than anyone else in the room? Well, this is precisely the audience this book will appeal to. The author doesn’t identify herself as a “Hipster” (then again, does anyone actually go around self-identifying as a “Hipster”? “Hello, I’m Joe.” (Extends hand) “I’m a Hipster.”) and I won’t define her as such. She has a right to self-identify as anyone else in this world - but this is the audience that this book is aimed at, whether consciously or not. You know the type. The guy (again, it’s usually a man) who digs the local coffee house barista, or perhaps the pretty, bookish looking girl sitting across the room while he fiddles with his latest read in an awkward attempt to get her attention and impress her? The guy who deeply cares what you think of him based on his choice of reading? Yep, that guy, although the book is primarily aimed toward young women like the author herself.
This is not to say it’s a bad book because it isn’t. I enjoyed this for the most part and for anyone who is a voracious reader and a lover literature and all things literary, this is a read that will generate laughter (the good kind), will allow you to identify with some of the feelings the author has about books and the importance of reading as well as turn you onto authors you may not have heard of or have heard of but never read. Lauren Leto is very well read and I found myself jotting down authors and novel titles that I am now very eager to read after reading what Leto had written about them. The book is sort of an amalgam of memoir, handbook, literary review and, as the subtitle says, “Field Guide” to the hearts and minds of readers everywhere.
However the book is not without its problems - and these “problems” are merely personal peeves and not at all a reflection of the writing and the obvious love Lauren has for the subject. The title is something of a misnomer since it sometimes reads less like “judging a book by it’s lover” than “judging the reader by his/her choice of book.” (I won't even get into the numerous times I've personally experienced this from many a proprietor of indie bookstores). While there are plenty of Lauren’s personal feelings about particular books and authors (she really has it in for J.D. Salinger for some reason and absolutely adores Jeffrey Eugenides) there is also some of what I like to call “social bullshit” attached to these feelings. In other words, there is a little too much worrying about how others will judge you for what you choose to read and it’s done in a very typically snarky way - the kind of snark that appeals to Hipsters everywhere; that kind of nudge and wink that says, “You get me, right? Right?” To be fair, the book is meant to be humorous and snarky. It takes the piss out of this sort of thing while at the same time reenforces it and while the advice given out (mainly to other young women) about their choice of mate, or their “Bookstore Hookup” and who to avoid like the plague and who to embrace (based solely on choice of reading material, mind you) it’s hard to take tooseriously and you see it for the send up that it is. However, unfortunately, there are way too many people who will take it seriously and that’s the problem. Or perhaps that I’ve aged past such way of thinking? While the book is aimed at alllovers of literature, the core audience here is young - like the author.
But just when you think you’ve sort of teased out Lauren’s true feelings about such matters, along comes the last few chapters, which were brilliantly written, insightful and full of “literary wisdom” that, I believe show Lauren’s true feelings on the subject at hand. In the chapter “The Literati” she accurately describes the trials and tribulations of the young writer coming to New York City, his head stuffed with literary dreams and aspirations. After perfectly detailing every young writer’s sojourn through the muck of the literary world, she writes, “My solution for all young writers being discouraged to the point of giving up is simple. Murder the others. Poison their overpriced vodka and soda while they’re in the bathroom. Shoot them in the face while they’re asleep. I’m talking about the people who read to criticize and who talk only to condescend. Rid our planet of them. Write your story. Send it in to one thousand publishing companies and when you received enough rejection letters that you could paper your walls with them, send it out to five thousand more.” And in the book’s introduction: “There is nothing more beautiful than a well-written book, and there is nothing more admirable than the attempt to create something beautiful.” This is - ultimately - the underlying sentiment behind this book, despite the numerous shots taken at authors and books that you may have well thought were the greatest works of literature ever written.
Lauren Leto is a lover of literature and this book is nothing short of a testament to that. And if you’re someone on the lookout for new authors to read and/or interesting novels to explore, this is a good “field guide” for that in and of itself. I know it was for me. If you can get past some of the “social bullshit” - as I call it - you will have in your hands a very entertaining, enjoyable - and informative - read.