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In our Dealbreakers series, exes report on the habit, belief, or boxer brief that ended the affair.
When I was 21, my love of books ended my first post-college relationship. My girlfriend was flabbergasted as to why anyone would read anything that wasn’t required for class credit; I was offended that she dismissed my love of the printed word alongside her previous boyfriend’s obsession with video games. To really put this in nerd terms: If you’ve ever seen that iconic Twilight Zone episode in which Henry Bemis’ wife defaces his books in an effort to break his “habit” of reading, this was similar. She was oppressive to the bookish. And she liked Reba McEntire.
After the breakup, I elevated my criteria for girlfriend material to levels rivaling Hammurabi’s Code. The contents of a woman’s bookcase had to at least be on par with her physical profile. Dating websites always give you pictures first, intel second, but some of us are turned on by brains, too. I’m not saying I could carry on a romance with a disembodied head who told awesome Goethe jokes. Nor is the possession of panties depicting Poe poetry an automatic win for a woman. But books have to be there.
Straight guys are often asked if they are “ass men” or “boob guys,” if they like skinny or curvy, if they prefer a big rack or a small rack, bush or no bush. And though it’s fun to claim allegiance to one camp or the other, I think the true answer is that we like attractive women who will sleep with us. A woman’s interest in books is similar for me. Just as I have no physical “type,” I also don’t only date Murakami Chicks or Contemporary Memoir Girls or Girls Who Read Moby Dick Twice a Year. They all read, and they’re all smart. But I didn’t realize that a woman could be book smart without being smart about books until I dated Dr. Brain.
When we met, I was working at a combination bookstore/venue where one of my many roles was to introduce visiting authors. I was kind of like a book emcee, and I thought this made me cool. Dr. Brain, who came to sit in on one reading, thought this made me cool, too. So cool, in fact, that it made me hot. Over drinks after the reading, she told me so a few times.
Dr. Brain was a real brain scientist, meaning she had a Ph.D. in neuroscience and could legitimately have her name preceded by the prefix “Dr.” Like, “Doctor, will you take your dress off,” or “Doctor, may we smoke a cigarette now that we’ve both had an orgasm?”
At first, our uncomplicated intellectual attraction translated well into bedroom antics. But soon, Dr. Brain became aware that I did more than just emcee books. I was a writer myself. I was directing a play at the time, a badly-written script which I had decided to sic on the world like a rabid little dog. Every person involved in the production was very sweet about the whole thing, though each was acutely aware that my words were probably best left unpronounced. Dr. Brain was supportive, too, and took an interest in my writing in all of its forms, no matter how unfortunate.
Then Dr. Brain informed me that she, too, wanted to become a writer. “I could write a book,” she said. “I know all these things about how research works, and pharmaceutical companies. I could do it. No problem.” Dr. Brain was very intelligent and highly educated. When she decided to put her formidable mind to something, there was little chance of me dissuading her. But I did ask a few questions, like “what kind of book would it be, specifically?” or “maybe you should work on submitting a shorter article first,” and finally, the most damning: “What’s the last book you read?”
The answer was a collection of pop culture essays—the book that launched at the reading where we met. I have nothing against pop culture essays; in fact, I make most of my living writing them. The damning part was that Dr. Brain didn’t even like the book. “It was stupid,” she said. “I want to write something important.”
“Entertainment isn’t stupid,” I said. “And some of those essays were pretty well written.”
“They’re pointless,” she countered. “If you’re going to write something, it should be important, have an impact.”
Dr. Brain's book, she told me, would investigate how a person’s brain chemistry could turn him into an extremist. She envisioned a how-to guide to brainwashing the subject in an effort to prevent the turn of mind. It was an interesting idea, but it was coming from someone whose professional body of work consisted largely of endorsements for certain drugs on behalf of certain pharmaceutical companies. If my writing was frivolous, at least it existed.
“Do you think what I do is pointless?” I asked her. “Is my play pointless?” This was a little unfair, because my play was pointless. But this had become about more than my play—she was questioning my entire intellectual legitimacy.
“Don’t you want your writing to matter?” she replied.
“It matters to me,” I said. I had suddenly grown quiet. I decided to up the ante. “What’s your favorite book?” I asked. “I mean, of all time. Any subject. Favorite book. Go.”
Without hesitation, she said: “1984,” then quickly, “by George Orwell.”
I suppose she didn’t want me to confuse it with the Danielle Steele version. I was irritated. 1984? What a drag. Sure, it’s iconic. But the characters are thin, and if you really want to read some Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying is his better work, and—but I didn’t say any of these things. I could get over this. I could get over 1984 being her favorite book. I could get over all of her ignorant claims about just shooting off a book, an important one. I could maybe even be supportive and helpful in this endeavor. There was just one thing I needed to know.
“When is the last time you read it?” I asked. I was 28 years old. She was 32.
She blinked and said, “I don’t know. High school.”
And just like that, it was over. I don’t disqualify romantic partners whose favorite books are 9th grade staples like To Kill a Mockingbird or Huckleberry Finn. Hell, I’m obsessed with The Old Man and the Sea and Catcher in the fucking Rye. But I’ve read both of those books several times since I escaped from beneath my parents’ roof. I don’t just talk about reading books, or show up to readings of books. I really read them, too.
If reading is a kind of passion, and passion is related to sex, a partner who only bothers to page through her “favorite book” once, way back in high school, hasn’t advanced much past intellectual puberty. A woman doesn’t have to have read—or even heard of—the books I love. She just has to read books, and read them for fun because she loves them. For some, writing that changes the world is a huge turn-on, and that’s great. For me, it’s a little smarter, and maybe a little sexier, when a woman is content to just turn the pages and sigh.
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