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August 15, 2013

Why I Like a Girl Who Reads

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Hello! I’m Austin. It's my first time contributing to 20SomethingReads.com and I'm happy to offer my trials and tribulations on this month's blog topic --- dating, inspired by THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF NATHANIEL P. by Adelle Waldman, a novel about a young man puzzling out his romantic life in the modern day.

“Say, Austin,” said my bosses, turning to look at me all sideways and clever-like. “Aren’t you a young man puzzling out your romantic life in the modern day?”

So, thus qualified by my age and gender, I’m here to share some of my thoughts on this wonderful, messed-up, utterly confusing time of my life with you all. Practical advice will be scarce, rambling will be likely and use of needlessly big words is guaranteed.

Let’s start with this title. I borrowed it from a piece by an excellent spoken word poet named Mark Grist. If you haven’t heard it, head over here and educate yourself. It’s okay, go ahead and click. I’ll wait.

Back? Good. Like Mark, I also like a girl who reads. Mainly because it gives us something interesting to talk about on that second or third date where you’re walking on eggshells around one another trying to replicate whatever it was you got right the first time --- and also trying not to sound like an idiot. But also for the simple reason that what we read and what we think about what we read is important. Let’s take our friend Nathaniel P. as an example. Do you like the way he treats the girls he dates? Maybe so. He’s not all that bad, a little self-centered maybe, but decent enough. Or maybe not. Maybe he just rubs you the wrong way and you got frustrated and stopped after three chapters. You have an opinion on Nathaniel, whether you want to be him, be with him or be nothing like him.

Does it matter that you like Nathaniel? Does it matter what we read? Does it make a difference that I read Tom Clancy’s latest spy/terrorist/black ops paint-by-numbers thriller instead of Hemingway or Tolstoy? It’s all entertainment in the end, and isn’t everyone entitled to his or her own particular brand of fluff? Not that I’m against people having guilty pleasures (I can neither confirm nor deny enjoying MY LITTLE PONY), I’m going to have to say yes. It makes a difference because we use the stories we read to order and make sense of what happens in our lives. Stories give you expectations. If you read a hundred variations of the same one with the white knight and beautiful damsel, you start building up a tower to sit in. They don’t dictate your life, but they definitely change how you look at it, like how a funhouse mirror will make some of our bits larger and some smaller.

The reason I like a girl who reads is that she knows this. She’s spent enough time with Elizabeth Bennet and Winston Smith and Harry, Ron and Hermione that she can see these patterns that crop up in our fiction. She can take them and analyze them and pick out what she likes and what she doesn’t like and bang together some realistic expectations for her own romantic life. She knows who she is and she knows who she isn’t, and isn’t afraid to talk about it.

The talking part is, I think, much more important than most people give it credit for. A little over a year ago, I was dating this girl. Well, I assume we were dating. We enjoyed each other’s company and did some date-like things and I even paid for some of them (let’s just call it chivalry and sidestep that conversation entirely). I liked her pretty well, and she seemed to like me, too. But we never really talked about what we were doing, we just sort of did it. And it was fine, until one day when it wasn’t. I still to this day have no idea what went wrong, if it was something I did or something she did, or even if it was anything at all. Maybe it was just over. Enough relationships end up that way that it’s really nothing special. The “Other” box on the checklist.

But that’s not the way it has to be. And maybe, not the way it should be. And since then, I’ve found that ability to step back and analyze a relationship and talk about it like mature adults to be incredibly valuable (gee, who’d have thought?). Of course it’s easy to say things like “communication is important,” (so easy I’m doing it for the whole Internet right now, in fact) but actually doing it is much more difficult. More recently, I was with another girl I’d been seeing, just sitting around at her place looking at pictures from her latest trip abroad. She sat up straight on the couch and she turned to me and said, “There’s something you should know about me.”

It’s okay. Don’t panic (at least, don’t panic any more than I did at the time). It wasn’t any of those kinds of things, just something worth talking about but nothing like a deal-breaker. And when my heart stopped hammering at my ribcage and got back to something like normal, I realized what she’d just done. She’d been thinking about us, and she had something she thought I should know. So she told me. Simple as that.

That is why I like a girl who reads. Because if you read enough other stories, you start taking an active role in shaping your own.