Show, Don’t Tell


Our Daily Correspondent


Pio Ricci, Das bewunderte Geschenk (The Admired Gift), 1919, oil on canvas.

Recently someone gave me a book. It was a book, she said, that she knew I would love. She had read it and thought of me at once. It was a supremely kind gift. My heart sank.

There are few things more oppressive than the things you are supposed to love—books, movies, records, people—things that somehow match the shorthand you show the world and mirror back just how crudely you have caricatured yourself. When someone says I will like something, I tend to assume the something in question will be precious, tedious, and often aggressively eccentric. Sometimes I do like these things, which is the worst outcome of all.

In the case of this particular book, I already knew. This is an author who people have assumed I have loved since I learned to read. Her novels, generally set on the Upper West Side or in Greenwich Village, are populated with the youngish, Jewish bourgeoisie of the Cuisinart generation: good educations, artistic leanings, and improbable names. Sometimes they have affairs with one another; often they are surrounded by antique china. This author has a cult following.

Back when I was young and idiotic, I, like many kids, defined myself as much by my aggressive dislikes as by my preferences. It seemed important to announce not merely that I loved the Replacements, but that I also hated the Who (whom I didn’t even hate). Dismissal was so easy, so satisfying, especially compared to defending what you love. When you are in the grip of the uncertainty and self-doubt of defining who you are, attack can be an easy escape—and hard to abandon.

We grow up. It gives me no pleasure nowadays to tear down anther person’s enthusiasm, still less something someone else believes I will love. How can anyone know the depths of another person? After all, if we put an itemized list of quirks and signifiers into the world—and, in the age of social media, this is often literal—like a lazy writer, can we blame anyone for reading us with as little care?

Then, too, maybe it is wrong to despise something—like a book that you’re supposed to love—for being only a part of who we are. We are all vast; we all contain multitudes, and some of them are tacky. No one is the list of quotes and likes on his Facebook page or the flippant description on his Twitter profile. But that can be part of it, too. André Maurois wrote that “in literature as in love, we are astonished at what is chosen by others.”