The press release billed Lauren Leto’s latest book Judging a Book by Its Lover: A Field guide to the Hearts and Minds of Readers Everywhere (Publisher: Harper Perennial; On Sale: October 2, 2012; Cost: $14.99) as a “hilarious and insightful take on contemporary book culture that both celebrates and mock’s literature’s biggest names and the people who read them.” Not being one too shy to mock the inane, I couldn’t help having my interest piqued by Ms. Leto’s work.
The only problem was that I had never heard of Lauren Leto.
A search of the interwebs revealed that she is the co-founder of a website called http://www.textsfromlastnight.com/, which (surprise!) publishes the unfortunate text you wish you had never sent. Besides this, it is worth noting that Leto is also a recovering law student, having dropped out of Wayne State Law School to launch her much more successful ventures on the web. Given this background I couldn’t fault Leto for her life choices but I still didn’t understand what made her particularly qualified to offer “snarky but spot-on observations about books and the passionate conversations they generate,” let alone why the “memorable moments from her own adventures in reading” should be interesting enough to merit a book deal.
Alas, the press release and author bio offered no answers to my questions. Still, I soldiered on. Intrepid.
Judging a Book by Its Lover reads like a book title in want of content. To fill the void, Ms. Leto’s every musing about the world of books seems to make it into the text. Early in the book, Leto inevitably describes readers of Ayn Rand novels as “old-money preps” (p.17), while reducing readers of Che Guevara biographies as “quirky hipsters” (which actually sounds about right). I suppose this is an example of Leto’s “distinctive voice” and “sparkling wit” but really it seemed more like an exercise in cliché. Similar misfortunes occur in the chapters titled “Fan Letters” (p.66), where Leto “berates” fans of various authors for their fandom, and “Stereotyping People by Favorite Author” (p.112), where Leto describes, quite pithily, the type of people who read the authors she lists.
The remainder of the text includes cheeky vignettes on everything from the influence of children’s books on childhood development (Reading Green Eggs and Ham = awesome kids) (p.106), to the surprisingly moving account of the relationship Leto developed with her grandmother, which centered on a common love of the written word (p.262).
Despite the relative non-sequitur nature of the essays, the best chapter of the book also comes from its longest chapter titled “How to Fake It.” Readers can be forgiven if the provocative title disappoints. The chapter actually outlines how to “casually discuss some of the most well-known classic and contemporary authors” without having read them (p.127).
For each author discussed, Leto provides a brief summary of the author’s life and influence, a description of the author’s major works, and a few points of detail about the author’s themes, writing style, etc. Of Dostoyevsky, Leto notes, “Dostoyevsky was exiled to Siberia by the czar because he’s a badass motherfucker.” She then recounts how Dostoyevsky was famously, nearly put to death by firing squad, only to receive a commuted sentence just before the execution was carried out.
While I don’t think it’s possible to actually pull off the fake Leto describes, this chapter is interesting because it outlines the style, plots, influences and legacy of a number of well-known authors. Leto’s author summaries, list of major works, and details are all extremely useful for anyone looking to begin exploring a new author, or for anyone in need of a quick-and-dirty book summary. And in all due credit, the sheer number of authors Leto discusses is fairly exhaustive, certifying her as either a true bibliophile or a demented mooch of Wikipedia.
In fact, Leto’s summaries created a bit of a “To Be Read” (p.259) list for yours truly. Her descriptions of Charles Bukowski’s work sound tempting, particularly when she notes early on that “drinking while reading Bukowski is actually a requirement.” (p.33). Also, her chapter “Infinite Lies” (p.91) actually sparked an interest for me in the works of David Foster Wallace, specifically his book Infinite Jest. This is admittedly, in part, because Leto did not finish it. Imitation is the highest form of flattery.
It’s not lost on me that I am being a bit hard on Lauren Leto, though no harder than she was on fans of Ayn Rand (p.66). But to set the record straight, Leto states forthrightly from the very beginning of the book, her admiration for the authors mentioned, and I have to return the same admiration for her. It’s easy to heckle creators from the cheap seats. It’s much more difficult to actually create something that others will want to read.
It’s also not lost on me that I’m cracking wise about Leto in much the same way that she snarks about the authors discussed in her book. Of course, I do so with much less panache, much less fame, and a much smaller book deal (viz. none). Though I questioned her authority to opine, I can’t help but admit that I’m in a similar place – with even less authority to criticize books seeing as I’ve never written one.
But as Leto notes, this is the essence of what reading inspires. We read to discuss, to connect with others, and to engage those who have read the same story, chapter and words as us. And once we begin this process we all become critics. Some readers are simply better at making their criticisms witty, and compiling enough of them together to make a book. And with that, here’s a hearty congrats to Lauren Leto.
Judging a Book by Its Lover will be available to the public beginning October 2, 2012. Pre-order on Amazon here.