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Have You Ever Had a Relationship End Because of a Book?

Sunday 2 November 2014

By ZOE HELLER and ANNA HOLMES

OCT. 28, 2014

Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. This week, Zoë Heller and Anna Holmes discuss the havoc books can wreak on relationships.

By Zoë Heller

Do you want to be one of those dreary couples who are always delivering their identical cultural opinions in the first person plural?

Many years ago, when I was in my 20s, I went on vacation with a boyfriend to a remote Scottish island. We spent the days going on long, wet hikes and drinking in the pub. At night, we huddled in our freezing house and read aloud to each other. Neither one of us, it turned out, cared much for the other’s choice of book. I had come with “A Legacy,” by Sybille Bedford, which my boyfriend found mannered and pretentious. He had brought “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” by Hunter S. Thompson, which I thought was tiresome and unfunny.

These differences of opinion did not strike me as a big deal. It was mildly disappointing, perhaps, that my boyfriend should be impressed by the drug-brag of Hunter Thompson and oblivious to the genius of Sybille Bedford. But it wasn’t as if I was auditioning him to be my literary adviser. Chacun à son goût, I thought.

He, on the other hand, was deeply troubled by our clashing literary tastes. He kept worrying at the subject — demanding to know how I could resist the charm of Thompson’s antic wit and what exactly was so alluring about Bedford’s “rich, snobby” characters. After a few nights, we gave up reading to each other, but his hectoring questions about why I liked what I liked (and didn’t like what I didn’t like) continued.

By the end of the vacation, we were at war. His view was that our failure to enjoy each other’s books was a sign of a more general and fatal incompatibility. (He couldn’t love someone who didn’t love Hunter Thompson.) My view was that he was fetishizing his own literary enthusiasms in a precious and rather creepy way. (I couldn’t love someone who placed such a premium on having his girlfriend underwrite his cultural preferences.) Soon after returning home, we parted ways.

The value of agreeing with one’s friends about books has always seemed to me overrated. Nothing in my experience suggests that literary taste is a reliable guide to a person’s character, or that shared literary passions bespeak deeper spiritual kinship. (Think for a moment of all those Nazis who loved Goethe.) I can see how disagreements about certain works of nonfiction might matter. If I were to come across a dear friend scribbling approving comments in the margins of “The Bell Curve,” that could be a game changer. And there are a few explicitly ideological novels (anything in the Ayn Rand oeuvre, for example) that I would be dismayed to find on a friend’s Favorite Books list. But the revelation in both these instances would be one of politics, of worldview, not of literary sensibility. Were a friend to tell me that he hated Jane Austen, my view of him and of our friendship would suffer not at all. I’ve known lots of fine men who did not “get” Austen and quite a few Janeites who were brutes. Besides which, my love of Austen is between Austen and me; it doesn’t need cheerleaders.

This surely is one of the great advantages of reading as a pursuit — that its pleasures do not rely on teammates or fellow enthusiasts, that the reader’s relationship with an author has no need of endorsement from third parties.

Insisting that your loved one’s literary judgments be in harmony with your own suggests to me a rather dull and narcissistic notion of what constitutes intimacy. Do you really want to be one of those dreary couples who are always delivering their identical cultural opinions in the first person plural?

(“Oh, we’re loving the latest volume of Knausgaard!”) One of the happiest romances I ever had was with a man who regarded George MacDonald Fraser’s “Quartered Safe Out Here” as the pinnacle of literary excellence. He also believed that Saul Bellow was a second-rate writer because “nothing ever happened” in his books. I thought he was mistaken in these matters, but I can’t say it bothered me much. Love is not love which alters when a man fails to appreciate “Herzog.”

Zoë Heller is the author of three novels: “Everything You Know”; “Notes on a Scandal,” which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and adapted for film; and “The Believers.” She has written feature articles and criticism for a wide range of publications, including The New Yorker, The New Republic and The New York Review of Books.

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By Anna Holmes

It may also say something that I refused to mingle my books with his, keeping mine on a bookshelf in a room he rarely entered.

Let me clarify from the outset that I never discovered a much-loved copy of “Mein Kampf” or “Atlas Shrugged” in a romantic interest’s underwear drawer, or had it revealed to me that a favorite book — say, “Pride and Prejudice” — was so loathed by a beau that he had to be ejected out of my bed, my heart, or even my life.

What books have done, however, is become flash points within already troubled relationships, especially with regard to the fact that I pay any attention to books at all. Books, and more broadly, the written word, have strained some of my most important love affairs — and in certain cases contributed to the disintegration of them. I was drawn to men who displayed a tendency to chafe at the very idea that I might find sustenance or succor in anything other than them.

I learned at a young age that for some men, books equal betrayal. My first boyfriend, a fellow N.Y.U. student one year my senior with whom I lived for two years, complained when I buried myself in narratives of long-form magazine journalism or pages of both classic and contemporary fiction. (In 1994, I started “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” but didn’t finish it, in part because of his protestations.) His insecurity, which he communicated via whining and pawing at me while I was reading, was flattering at first but ultimately not very persuasive, so he tried other methods of distraction, like initiating arguments that he knew I didn’t have the self-discipline to avoid. Granted, we were both about 20 years old.

The contours of a more recently failed relationship were also defined, in part, by how much I read, both for work and for pleasure. The times, of course, had changed: Instead of college textbooks or physical copies of Harper’s Magazine or 1,000-page sci-fi novels, I lost myself in the illuminated screens of, in no particular order, my laptop, iPad and iPhone. But the effect my love of reading had on the relationship was the same — a resentment so vicious and ultimately intolerable that it prompted me to flee ever deeper into that which was supposedly creating much of the conflict: my love affair with the written word. (It may also say something that I refused to mingle my books with his, preferring to keep mine on a bookshelf in a room that he rarely entered.)

I suspect I am not the only woman to become involved with men who profess to value her for her ability to be emotionally present, curious and passionate only to reveal, down the road, an expectation that this sort of generosity of time and energy be restricted solely to interests and activities that include them. I hate the idea that there is a type of person whose impulse when witnessing a partner’s clearly rewarding, other-directed engagement is to react with contempt, not celebration; to expect the prioritizing of one’s own needs far above hers. In my experience, daring to honor my interior life — not to mention my professional commitments — has proved, in the context of coupling, to be a controversial, radical act.

To be fair, there’s a difference between sticking one’s nose in a printed book and scrolling, trance-like, through the almost infinite options served up by digital media technology. A printed book, after all, is still a physical object, with a front and a back, an author and a reader, a beginning and an end. Digital media, on the other hand, suggests not only numerous authors but numerous respondents — and it’s difficult to walk away from, meaning that maybe the sense of betrayal communicated by my recent ex was felt even more acutely. I don’t know for sure; he won’t really say. But I do recall that, after a number of especially devastating arguments with him, I used to wonder if he would have demonstrated such disgust for my need to be in communion with the written word had I simply been cradling a copy of a paperback book.

Anna Holmes is an award-winning writer who has contributed to numerous publications, including The Washington Post, Salon, Newsweek and The New Yorker online. She is the editor of two books: “Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters From the End of the Affair”; and “The Book of Jezebel,” based on the popular women’s website she created in 2007. She works as an editor at Fusion and lives in New York.

A version of this article appears in print on November 2, 2014, on page BR31 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Have You Ever Had a Relationship End Because of a Book?.

See online: Have You Ever Had a Relationship End Because of a Book?