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Dear Paris Review, What Books Impress a Girl?

June 8, 2012 | by

Dear Paris Review,

Someone sent me this text message yesterday: Whats a book I should read to make girls think I'm smart in a hot way? I want to seem like a douchey intellectual instead of my deadbeat self. What should I tell him?

Sincerely,
A

Dear A,

The correct answer is probably that your friend should be secure in his tastes, find someone who loves him for who he is, and not worry about impressing anyone. Many movies have demonstrated the pitfalls of posturing and the inevitable public unmasking that follows. That said, our job here is to try to answer questions, and as such, I took the unusual step of soliciting a range of answers from both men and women.  (My own immediate response was to offer the following formula: worst book of great author, a gambit that men of this type also apply to albums, i.e. Metal Machine Music, which they will claim is underrated.) Then too, there is the dual nature of the question: Does the author wish to come across as a poseur for some reason, or attract a woman of substance?  If his goal is (inexplicably) the former, the female contingent offered the following names: Madness and Civilization; The Power Broker; Žižek (any), The Brothers Karamazov. (All worthy reads, needless to say, but often used for ostentatious or intimidating purposes.) And, added one, “I like DFW, but he’s the novelist equivalent of a neg.”

As to books the women whom I spoke to found appealing (and please note that this implies actual reading, not use as props): At Swim Two Birds, The Beauty Myth, “any book read twice.” Elaborated one: “Extra points for Martin Amis memoir, minus points for other Martin Amis nonfiction. Someone who actually appears to be reading William Gaddis for real and not just carrying it around will always rate a second glance. And a straight man reading Mary Gaitskill would be nearly irresistible to me.”

When faced with the same question, male correspondents provided the following terse responses: “Cantos, Pound.” “Kathy Acker.” “Sontag.”

Portnoys Complaint,” said one, “may as well be Yiddish for douche.”

Others were more expansive. “How about Laszlo Kraszahorkai’s Satantango? It’s ostentatious, hip, handsomely designed (looks great on a bedside table), and comes with seals of approval from Sontag, Sebald, and James Wood. It is also, for the most part, unreadable.”

Gravitys Rainbow, all the completed Caro LBJ books, Brothers Karamazov. But if you really want ‘I am a brooding intellectual with an effortless knowledge of contemporary culture,’ I think Matterhorn is tough to top.”

“There’s a difference,” remarked one colleague, “between getting a girl to think you’re smart, and getting a girl to WANT to talk to you. The following are books that will make girls want to talk to you.

—Greatest pick-up book of all time is Just Kids by Patti Smith, because every girl has read it and they ALL want to talk about it.
—Any book ever written by Haruki Murakami
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
White Album by Joan Didion
What We Talk About, When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. (Don’t question it. Just trust.)”

And in corroboration, one fellow says: “If it means anything, the only time a girl ever sat down and started talking to me out of nowhere was when I was reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem in college.  Didion has an effect on people.”

Take this for what it’s worth, and we hope you actually find a book you love in the process.

Have a question for the editors of The Paris Review? E-mail us.

90 COMMENTS

64 Comments

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  1. L | June 8, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    Some of us long to meet a man who doesn’t like Murakami. Imagine.

  2. rocko | June 8, 2012 at 3:31 pm

    Suskind, Perfume. Works every time

  3. elizabeth | June 8, 2012 at 3:37 pm

    Wait, really? Any dude that loved Mary Gaitskill would have me heading for the hills. creeps. lydia davis, now, that’s a Win.

  4. Will Clarke | June 8, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    Nabokov seems the obvious choice, no? Especially something besides Lolita. My go-to is usually Pnin.

  5. Arturo Ulises | June 8, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    “—Greatest pick up book of all time is Just Kids by Patti Smith, because every girl has read it and they ALL want to talk about it.”

    If true, I am going to commit suicide.

  6. Christine | June 8, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    The equivalent of “Just Kids” if you like to talk to nice middle aged gays in the subway is Birgit Nilsson’s “My Life in Opera.”

  7. A | June 8, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    Gravity’s Rainbow? Really? I would think, being a male, seeing a women enjoy any Dostoyevsky or any short story collection- Joyce’s Dubliners would be a plus for me. Poetry wise, I would agree any Pound, Eliot or Berryman would also be a plus.

    If I also found a woman who enjoyed that or any of Dennis Cooper’s books, I would probably fear for my life.

  8. Literary Man | June 8, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    Love in the Time of Cholera and The Kite Runner are guaranteed to solicit female attention on any subway anywhere in Manhattan. This is neither good nor bad; it just is.

  9. T | June 8, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    The only time a girl ever approached me out of the blue about a book I was reading was on public transportation and it was The Dubliners. Not sure which conclusions to draw from that, but there it is.

  10. WriterJack | June 8, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    Have to agree with A. Any woman who reads Pound or Eliot or Berryman is much more attractive.

  11. Joe Carlson | June 8, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    “Extra points for Martin Amis memoir, minus points for other Martin Amis nonfiction.”
    What’s wrong with his nonfiction KOBA THE DREAD? Amis doesn’t claim to be an historian but his short book is a very informative introduction to the horror that was Stalin – a figure, let’s remember, highly thought of by American leftists of a certain stripe in the 1930’s and 1940’s. And his novel TIME’S ARROW is a masterpiece.

  12. MGN | June 8, 2012 at 6:40 pm

    There’s nothing wrong with Koba the Dread. People like to pick on Martin Amis now because he’s failed (to his credit) to join the Franzen pantheon of bland middle-aged respectability masquerading as irascibility–but just wait for his posthumous exaltation.

  13. Nico | June 9, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    Even more impressive than merely possessing books is, you know, the ability to discuss them intelligently.

  14. Polly | June 9, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    I once attracted a geeky guy (unintentionally!) by describing a book well and engaging his attention- it was called Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture. He declared his infatuation with me a couple of weeks later in a computer lab surrounded by half a dozen engineering geeks who seemed oblivious or maybe had their headphones on- I was too embarrased to look!

  15. ee | June 9, 2012 at 9:04 pm

    At first I was going to say list doesn’t apply, but literally ANYONE reading the Phantom Tollbooth garners my attention. I’ve read it since I was 8. So ya, that was spot on. Also a good read for whatever scum is trying to scam girls through reading interesting literature.

  16. Liz | June 10, 2012 at 11:04 am

    Agree about the Phantom Tollbooth, what a blast from the past! On the Road & Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade have been unsolicited conversation starters for me, for better or worse. Mostly worse.

  17. Katis | June 10, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    Roth is so obvious I would walk away, and I wouldn’t jump on someone reading hosseini or Marquez, but absolutely on the phantom tollbooth. I’d also probably talk to someone reading arundhati Roy, pulphead, or a good travel lit book.

  18. Katis | June 10, 2012 at 1:49 pm

    Also didion? Meh.

  19. bob | June 10, 2012 at 5:47 pm

    There’s a bizarre, presumably USAian bent to this article. I don’t mean the books mentioned specifically, although there’s obviously a “local” effect, but more regards what is considered good. The questioner wishes to look intellectual and yet how may French authors are mentioned? No Zola or Balzac or de Maupassant? And of the English writers, Martin Amis? His dad was more intelligent. And insightful.

    Do USAians view USAian writers as intellectual?

  20. John Geoghegan | June 10, 2012 at 6:12 pm

    I loathe Murakami!

  21. John Geoghegan | June 10, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    Dostoevsky and Pynchon are impenetrable!

  22. John Geoghegan | June 10, 2012 at 6:14 pm

    Nabokov is EXCELLENT!

  23. John Geoghegan | June 10, 2012 at 6:15 pm

    The Kite Runner is PAP! Almost anything by Marquez is FABULOUS. Should not be mentioned in the same breath.

  24. John Geoghegan | June 10, 2012 at 6:16 pm

    The Phantom Toll Booth? And women accuse men of NEVER growing up.

  25. John Geoghegan | June 10, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    Joan Didion is WAY over rated.

  26. Daniel Wayland | June 10, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    No Steinbeck? No Whitman?
    Reading Leaves of Grass on the coach caught the attention of the bright and very pretty girl who – on that basis – started a conversation with me, subsequently becoming my first serious romance…

    PS I was reading it ’cause i liked it ;-)

  27. MPK | June 11, 2012 at 4:55 am

    My advice: de Sade or Sacher-Masoch. Perhaps Bataille, though that may be too much.

  28. M. | June 11, 2012 at 9:19 am

    As a woman, and an MA student of literature, I’ve read one of these. What about Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Chaucer, Langland, Dante, John Milton, Jonathon Swift? Consider Augustine, Homer, and Virgil, even.

  29. T S Ash | June 11, 2012 at 10:23 am

    I think most girls would be put off by someone reading Chaucer or Augustine on a bus.

  30. J. | June 11, 2012 at 11:23 am

    I don’t think I’d bother to go out of my way to engage with a stranger just because they happened to be reading books/authors that already get lots of discussion (Hosseini, Pynchon, Murakami, Didion, Marquez).

    I’d be more intrigued by someone reading Maugham or Waugh, or Annie Dillard. No one talks to me about them. That would also include poets that aren’t taught in every lit class, such as Elizabeth Bishop, Galway Kinnell, James Wright, Robert Hass, Zagajewski, Eavan Boland, etc.

  31. Michael | June 11, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    A little offended about the Portnoy’s Complaint quote. You, or the one being quoted, has obviously never grown up in a Jewish household.

    That being said, you seemed to leave out The Collector by Jonathan Fowles.

  32. Vincent | June 12, 2012 at 12:14 pm

    My brother and I, both straight and married, often talk about how reading books attracts the attention and conversation of other straight men. Specifically when sitting alone at a bar on a weekend afternoon. Cormac McCarthy tends to be an easy conversation starter. Anything about the Civil War does well, too.

  33. Evan | June 12, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    My vote: all the books, heaps and heaps of them lining your walls, broken bindings and dog-eared to hell. But, if you’re short on time memorize Christopher Marlowe’s “Passionate Shepherd to His Love.”

    If she responds with Raleigh’s “The Nymph’s Reply” then you hold on to that woman, and you never let her go.

  34. Jesus | June 12, 2012 at 5:04 pm

    What about American Psycho or Mein Kampf?

  35. in columbus | June 12, 2012 at 6:15 pm

    I can hardly think of a question more bound up with faulty presuppositions than this one.

    Books are like politics in that they will be completely ignored by the only sort of girl who is worthy of attention.

    Women and men are different. Why should we expect them to like the same things? Why waste our time pretending?

  36. Thomas Dylan | June 13, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    The answer is easy — a book fashioned from a large amount of United States currency.

  37. Lt. | June 14, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    I don’t understand AT ALL the reference to Matterhorn. We are talking about the excellent Karl Marlantes novel, correct? “Brooding intellectual”? “Contemporary culture”? This is a novel about Marines in Vietnam, and it is excellent. What am I missing?

  38. Mauricio | June 16, 2012 at 9:12 am

    I second the Sade/Bataille mention. I talked about these books with my current girlfriend and while they had no magic by themselves, it set the tone of our relationship right from date one. She talked to me about Palahniuk’s Haunted and a book on masturbation which name I forgot. These worked on me. Last gift she gave me was a collection of Sade short stories – that’s a keeper. But your mileage may vary as they say.

  39. musicmope | June 16, 2012 at 9:54 am

    Kolba the Great: in which Martin Amis takes an entire book to ask why no one thinks Stalin was such a bad guy except for Amis. To which the entire world cultured and uncultured sighs out: “WTF are you talking about?.” And, Joe Carlson, I promise you that using a Martin Amis book to take potshots at 1940’s leftists is the definition of a panty/boner killer.

  40. R. Armstrong | June 16, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    I am female and I have never read the Patti Smith. Nor would I be interested in talking to men reading most of the above. I would want to talk to anyone reading any bell hooks, C.D. Wright, Eliot yes, Nabokov yes, even Lolita if they’re on to the second half and have never seen the movies, Tolstoy if they can talk about it, Didion is fine, I strongly dislike Murakami and think it’s dull that everyone wants to talk about it, I would talk to, out of the blue, anyone reading Keri Hulme’s The Bone People. Or, though this will likely never happen, the Collected Works of Elizabeth I or Drama of the English Renaissance: the Tudor Period. I’d probably get off the train with you if I caught you reading that. Only if you were annotating.

  41. Shana | June 18, 2012 at 6:10 pm

    For me, it was less about what they did read and more about what they didn’t read. I wasn’t interested in a guy who’s book shelves were filled with Robert Ludlum and James Patterson. I couldn’t care less if you were reading Pynchon or Delillo (considering I hate them both), but I did care that a guy was reading interesting and mentally stimulating books, rather than drivel. And working in a book store for 2+ years, I encountered a lot of guys reading drivel.

  42. David | June 18, 2012 at 6:41 pm

    If I ever met a woman laughing while reading PG Wodehouse, I would talk to her.

  43. scott | June 18, 2012 at 8:04 pm

    I wouldn’t date a woman who was impressed by anything about the pompous and hypocritical Zizek.

  44. Tim | June 18, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    The Brothers Karamazov does not belong in this kind of discussion. Don’t befoul it with your list-making like it is any other book.

  45. Tim | June 18, 2012 at 9:23 pm

    P.S. Do you know of any literary blogs I should mention reading if I want to come across as a poseur?

  46. nicholas | June 18, 2012 at 10:13 pm

    Fifteen years ago I sat down on a crowded subway train from Berkeley to SF across the aisle from a woman reading V14 of the Collected Works of Marx/Engels. Astounded, I struck up a conversation. Alas, her husband was a grad student writing a paper on 19th century British history and she was reading it on her way to work because she didn’t have something else to read.

  47. SF PROF. | June 20, 2012 at 3:42 am

    The Fountainhead. Read it on campus. A cheerleader type will sit down and tell you, eyes wide, how BRAVE you are and how she thought she was the only one in the world who LOVED that book. Say, “You too? I thought I was the only one!” You’re off! Another day, a leftist will sit down and tell you she HATES Ayn Rand and ask if you’re CRAZY or WHAT? Later you will have fabulous hatesex with her.

  48. Jagan | June 20, 2012 at 4:52 am

    My current love interest was initially attracted to me when I started talking about the debut novels of Barnes and McInerney. We both laughed our guts out when reading about the debauched NYC in Big City, Bright Lights.
    On a general level, this article is of no help to me. I live in India and, apart from Sheldon, Rand, Bhagat, M&B’s, girls here read zilch.

  49. george | June 20, 2012 at 9:29 am

    The question, the answers, most of the comments: pathetic.
    What a poverty-stricken way of looking at life, relationships…

  50. djk simon | June 20, 2012 at 9:51 am

    In high school, guy carrying around well-worn copy of Bertrand Russell – I married him (even though he later admitted it was all an enigma to him).

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