What to wear? I stood in front of my bookcase as if it were a closet, trying on titles for size. My favorite contemporary novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao? Too popular. My favorite recent nonfiction, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read? Too obscure. My favorite poetry book of all time, Dante’s Inferno (Mandelbaum translation)? Too intense.
I was headed to a literary speed dating event, which differs from normal speed dating in that every participant is supposed to bring a book as an icebreaker. According to the Times, literary speed dating was developed in Europe around 2005 in order to “enliven somber libraries” and has since exploded across the United States. Last Thursday, New York City’s iconic Strand Book Store held its second annual "Valentine’s Day Edition" in the rare book room.
Here’s how it works: a line of men faces a line of women (queer folks get their own event), and you have a brief conversation with the stranger across from you. Whenever time is called, the women’s line moves one space to the left. If you’d like to see someone again, you make a mark next to his name on your scorecard; if he also checked you off, the event coordinators will put you in touch.
As to the all-important question of what book to carry, I settled upon Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia: witty and flirty, with a joyful intellectualism straddling math, science, and the humanities — all subjects that excite me, as a surgeon and former biology major with a Renaissance-woman bent. I could branch off and mention the other Stoppard plays I’d read, as well as the one I’d seen performed in St. Paul, the question game in Rosencrantz..., and my disappointment with the new Anna Karenina, for which Stoppard penned the screenplay. To prepare for incisive interchange, I reread Arcadia the night before coming to the Strand.
This turned out to be overkill. Once we got there, we were allotted exactly two minutes with each of 28 people. Even this way I was only meeting half the men present.
Two minutes, as you might imagine, is an absurdly short time in which to chat up anyone, much less to discuss literature. Worse, at least half of the men showed up without books — a few because they had actually been recruited from the Strand's lower floors at the last minute to even out the gender imbalance. Those without books were given fortune-cookie slips containing conversation starters such as this one: "Nice people don't necessarily fall in love with nice people. —Jonathan Franzen." The guy across from me said he agreed with this quote, I said I did too, and then we had no more to say.
I met a composer, an actor, a bank worker whose passion is photography, a financier who plays the drums in two bands, and a freelance illustrator working on a graphic novel. The oldest was a white-ponytailed man in tweed who reminisced about the Vietnam War demonstrations. The youngest was a self-proclaimed “postmodern fiction writer” fresh out of college and looking for a job. One guy tried asking me, “So what do you like to eat?” (uh, yummy food?), which reminded me of Winnie Cooper’s disaster date on The Wonder Years asking “So what are your five favorite breakfast cereals?”
Looking back, the most telling moment of the evening happened right when I arrived: I found myself rapturously staring at the rare books instead of checking out the humans in the room. I was glad to be reminded that while men come and go, literature-love is forever. So, this Valentine’s Day, here’s to loving books. If you’re taking one to bed tonight, you could be doing a lot worse.