A Question of Reading

In the compendious encyclopaedia of things I know very little about, the extensive chapter on Women would be certain to take up a great deal of the volume dedicated to the letter W. It would quite possibly be the largest single entry between the monograph on Wombats and the equally lengthy article on Wooing – a subject on which my views are so spectacularly outdated that it was originally filed under C for Courtship.

One of the few areas which this magisterial work could afford to gloss over with relative indemnity, however, would be the subsection on Women, Cheap and Lazy Stereotypes of. I was born into the third generation of men for whom the terms ‘Male Chauvinist Pig’ were deemed insulting, and thanks to an intensive education in the manifold expressions of feminism my attitude towards women lives on a sliding scale somewhere between a sense of total bewilderment and a sophisticated state of terror. As I understand it, this is the way women have always wanted to be viewed.

Possibly the hoariest of cliches (an expression which would go over so badly in a podcasted version of this piece) on this issue is the scatterbrained female obsession with fashion. How often are we presented with the image of a couple’s big night out ruined by the wife’s dilly-dallying at the armoire, causing the bone china to ring with the cry: “I have absolutely nothing to wear!”

As mentioned above, I have far too few data points on this claim to draw any meaningful conclusions as to its veracity. What I must admit to, however, is a sudden realisation that I have been equally guilty of such stereotypical behaviour. Not on the subject of clothes, however – on the subject of books.

Consider the parallels. Every few weeks I allow myself a small allowance to go out and buy something pretty to put on my shelves. For this purpose I have flounced around the finest retail outlets in Geneva, New York, Paris and London. I stifle a yawn as I see the lists of books everyone else is reading this season. Why should I need to read the bestsellers? That is what other people are for. Suddenly, in some exclusive corner or on some remote bookshelf my eye is caught. Sometimes by an item’s beauty, sometimes by the designer label printed on the dustjacket. I may have an edition which looks exactly like it acquiring dust at home; I may buy it and never have the occasion to read it; it may in fact clash with the style and tone of everything else I have ever striven to put on my shelf. Never mind – I’ll take it.

Which is why my unread bookshelves look the way they do – warehouses bursting with the finery of yesteryear, authors who have gone out of fashion and publishing houses which have long since closed. This is why Dorothy Parker rubs shoulders with Homer and Jeremy Clarkson and the books of Edward de Bono are weighed down by biographies of Ariel Sharon. These are all volumes I once viewed with genuine excitement – books over whose shape and colour and heft I salivated and by whose back-cover blurbs I was rendered speechless.

And now? Now, I find myself standing before them with a suitcase in hand, vainly trying to find the perfect set of travel books as a taxi honks outside and airport staff members page Mr. Amit with increasing urgency. My gaze blanks and my temples throb at the agony of making such a crucial decision. And then, unbidden, I hear my vocal chords giving rise to that odious and truthless cry: “I have absolutely nothing to read!”