You’ve all had that moment. You’re on the train, coming home from a long, frustrating day at work or that night class you regret taking. You’re slumped over your seat listening to Alt-J or the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs single. You look around you at the faint squalor of the train; the lights on this car seem set to perpetual gray dusk, a metaphor for your mood you don’t appreciate. But then you look across from you and you see him sweating as he tears through a Saul Bellow novel you’ve always sworn to read or Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.
Gone Girl, you wonder? Who is this man? Who gave him that? Is that a gift from a wife or girlfriend? Is he in a book club? Holy shit, that’s so hot.
You then begin to fantasize about this stranger on the train, what genres he’s into and what positions he likes when he reads. You want to know him in the literary sense. You like a man with a pulsing, ten-inch brain — but one that knows how to use it. Is the car getting steamy or is it just you? It’s probably just you. Edna Pontellier, take me away.
There are Tumblrs devoted to Hot Guys Reading Books, and John Waters advised us never to fuck someone who doesn’t read. I have a friend who considers not owning books a major red flag and another who describes her ideal guy as “someone she can read in bed with on a Sunday.” What is it about the elusive Guy Who Reads that attracts us so much and makes him a unicorn of dating? How did books become the Third Heat of Romance?
The obvious explanation is that, no matter what Jersey Shore tells us, people find intelligence attractive in a mate. We want someone who can keep up with us and get our jokes, who can understand the secret parts of ourselves, yet also stimulate us and help us discover new things. We like the guy who can pass us a book we’ve never read before, and not be so set in his Bukowski ways that he can’t pick up Colette or Joyce Carol Oates sometime. I saw a man reading Persuasion on the train the other day, and I nearly died. I thought that the ambulance or a hearse was going to have to take me away from the scene of my erotic demise.
I like to meet people who are open to new things and ways of thinking and the easiest way to judge that is by his book collection. When you ask someone what kind of music they listen to, they always say everything, which is never true. If you press, they will tell you that they don’t like Country, Reggae, Rap, R&B, Bluegrass, Metal and a host of other genres it’s considered safe to outright dismiss. They really mean “everything that a person should like in order for you to want to have sex with them” or everything Pitchfork likes. “Everything” will consist of a lot of Pavement, Interpol, Surfer Blood and Animal Collective — with a dash Feist thrown in to mix things up. They can get down.
But an easier way to judge how open a person’s mind is to look at their book collection and see what they are putting in that brain of theirs. Are they a strictly Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson and Cormac McCarthy person? Are they only interested in obscure books that you’ve never heard of? Do they only read in Russian, the universal language of carnality? Reading allows us to see what’s under the surface of someone and realize that this hot guy might be more than what he seems. In a society where we become jaded as we come to believe everyone is the same, books offer the promise of something different, another world opening up to us. Inspecting someone’s reading list offers us a glimpse.
However, there’s a logical trap in surveying the breadth of someone else’s taste. A narrow love of particular genre isn’t always an indication of a closed mind; it just as often speaks of a focused one — the kind of obsessive who can’t stop reading on a particular subject and needs to know everything they can dig up. Joseph Campbell once advised young readers not to browse everything but to burn through the collection of their favorite authors, and whether you take that advice or not, reading is a visual testament to the passion of intellect. And passion (in forms that doesn’t include “passion for eating people”) is incredibly sexy.
Your passion doesn’t have to be for bound books in the traditional sense; a guy next to me at the gym the other day was listening to a Noam Chomsky lecture on tape and I almost fell off the back of my treadmill. A friend’s brother was obsessed with learning new languages, and he would pick up almost every copy “French for Dummies” or “Conversational Hungarian for Blithering Idiots” he could find. He taught himself Swedish. You know what I did yesterday? I pooped, a lot, and watched Cougar Town. His thing is way cooler.
We’re attracted to people that inspire us to push ourselves, whether that’s our minds, our hearts or our bodies; those people who stand on the sidelines at marathons aren’t there for their health. They are there because feats of endurance are worthy of support and awe, whether that’s running a ridiculous distance at ungodly hours, quitting smoking or managing to finish Ulysses, the marathon of literature. I have a friend who finds men working with power tools sexy, because who doesn’t love a man who sweats?
In the case of the latter, it’s about seeing someone work to improve the world, whether that’s in grand ways or smaller ones, like the annals of home improvement. Who doesn’t love someone who can fix the plumbing? Please, by all means. Allow me to enjoy the sights.
Men pay a lot of money to find out how to attract mates. They buy books that make misogyny into a clever sport, wear garish clothing to “peacock” and try to be the biggest alpha male that ever alpha-ed. But it’s not about being impressive or standing out because of what you’re wearing; it’s about standing out for who you are and what you’re passionate about. We shouldn’t just be peacocking our clothing; we need to wear our personalities, our interests and our selves with pride. People are attracted not just to confidence but to people who know who they are and love themselves for that. Loving yourself is the hottest.
Also, men: If you could love yourself with some Foucault in your hand, that’s even better. Hello, stranger! How about that panopticon? The romance practically writes itself.