What would a self-identified law school drop-out and co-founder of the decidedly shallow cult website textsfromlastnight.com know about literature, you might ask? Well quite a lot, as it turns out.
Barely out of college, Lauren Leto appears to have crammed more reading into her life than air into her lungs. She’s read every great classic tome ever published from Tolstoy to Proust, not to mention all the contemporary big hitters. She’s studied the works of as many popular, prolific and prize-winning authors as you can possibly think of as well as those on the fringes. From magical realism to postmodernism to Harry Potter to fanfiction and even utter junk, this freshly pressed bibliophile has apparently left no page unturned.
It makes you feel quite sick actually. To think all that time I spent in nightclubs drinking and dancing and I could have been reading Dostoyevsky… More to the point, what’s the poor girl going to read for the next 70 years?
But I digress. Leto describes her book Judging a Book by its Lover as a ‘Field Guide to the Hearts and Minds of Readers Everywhere’. This woefully inaccurate description is nevertheless witty and sets the tongue in cheek tone of the book from the outset. Which is just as well ‘cos this girl’s got some balls! She reduces the greatest works of literature to twitter-friendly summaries in the section titled “How to Fake it”, even venturing so far as to instruct readers on how to talk condescendingly about the most revered authors in history. Parts of this self-help manual are genuinely interesting – particularly the gossipy lesser-known details around certain works and their authors (everything from McEwan’s divorce and custody battle to personality quirks, and who dates who in the authorsphere). Think of it like the Women’s Weekly of books where celebrities are authors not actors. Damn, I’d definitely buy that.
Chapters are varied and have great potential; who doesn’t enjoy stereotyping people based on the books they read? How about summarising memoirs in under 140 characters (“Annoying blond woman harps about her extravagant vacation and upper-middle-class premenopausal problems for four hundred pages” – bet you didn’t guess she’s referring to Eat, Pray, Love, did you?). Then there’s rules for hooking up in a bookstore, protocol for reading in public or participating in bookclubs, tips on how to classify fiction in an ugly but practical broad-sweeping fashion, as well as a guide to what your kid will grow up to be depending on what picture books you read them.
Mostly it’s light-hearted fun; Leto makes a veiled attempt at objectivity which helps deflect attention away from what she really thinks about anything. And it’s open-slather – no author or reader is spared her sardonic wit, even ironically, James Frey (A Million Little Pieces) whose glowing commendation of the book makes you wonder if he actually read it, considering how he himself is reflected in it. Readers get their fair share of stick as well, although Leto’s research seemed to have been restricted to middle-class American readers falling between the ages of 18 and 28. Too bad for anyone over the age of 30; we’re all lumped into the category of “Soccer Mom” or “Dorky Dad”. Tsk tsk Lauren, so lazy – and a golden opportunity missed.
Leto is careful to include sufficient self-deprecating remarks as to ensure she’s not above her own sarcasm (frequent references to dropping out of law-school and a “dark” confession that Janet Evanovich is her booze) – but unfortunately it doesn’t really ring true. When she’s read as densely and widely as she has, or at least as much as she wants us to believe, there seems to be little point in trying to qualify it with fine print.
People who’ve laughed out loud reading Judging a Book are far more generous than me. It was an enjoyable and amusing read but I wasn’t slapping my thighs. I think that’s partly because the cynicism and jadedness felt a bit inauthentic for one so young, a bit too studied. Which is a shame because the premise of the book is great and certainly Leto’s years in the reading wilderness have paid off because there’s no doubt she can write well. In fact, the autobiographical parts of the book are probably the most interesting of all and are genuinely comedic – in a kind of “prom queen got the guy but nerd-girl gets the book deal” kind of way. I wish she’d made more of that.
Even so, I made an Instabook review of Judging a Book by its Lover – if you don’t know what that is, you need to check it out now! Read it here.