Is this how to start a new chapter in your love life?
Literary speed-dating is big in the US. Miranda Kiek tries it out in London
Monday 12 March 2012
You are sitting on a train, and across the aisle someone is reading one of your favourite books.
This person (clearly of taste) happens to be a tall, handsome man. As you stare he looks up, catches your eye and smiles – he asks for your number... Browsing in a bookshop you reach out to pick up a book; so does the person standing next to you. The person happens to be a tall, handsome man. He catches your eye and smiles – he asks if you would like to go for coffee... So run the fantasies of many a book-lover.
Which is why Literary speed-dating is such an exciting prospect for a bookish single. The conceit is that, rather than talk about yourself, you talk about a book you have brought along. It's run of the mill speed-dating made intellectual – more Granta than Hello!. The idea has already taken off across America and Canada, with speed-dating events held at such cultish venues as the Rare Book Room in New York's famous Strand bookstore (which holds an immensely popular literary speed-date every Valentine's Day). Inexplicably, though, literary speed-dating has yet to become commonplace here.
Anxious to try out this 21st-century method of merging reading and romance, I gate-crashed a literary speed-dating event hosted by the London School of Economics' Student Union Literary Society as part of the LSE's Literary Festival. I spent the whole of the week before in the throes of a delightful dilemma – not over what to wear, but over which book to take. "By what book ye bring, ye shall be judged" could be the motto of literary speed-dating. Do not look pretentious, or lightweight, beware a cynical choice and beware a book which takes itself too seriously. A children's book could make you appear immature and an electronic text is a no-no. (I chose Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love and crossed fingers that it wouldn't frighten off potential suitors).
On the night itself a group of about 30 met in a room of the LSE's New Academic Buildings. As we milled prior to the speed-dating kick-off, I asked if anyone had been on a conventional speed-dating night. If they had, no one admitted to it. It was that extra-literary twist which for them, as for me, had proved an irresistible combination. Somewhat predictably the women marginally outnumbered the men (the event's organiser had been inundated with women wanting to take part but had struggled to drum up the same enthusiasm from men).
In spite of the unfavourable odds, I refused to be discouraged and began the evening with high hopes. The men I met brandished books by authors from Franz Kafka to George Friedman, from Aldous Huxley to Richard Bach and from Jonathan Swift to Evelyn Waugh. A few showed off their feminine side by making the case for Kate Chopin's The Awakening and Caitlin Moran's blockbuster How to be a Woman. Three nervous-looking undergrads, attending as a result of a dare, found comfort in the free wine (in fact so unstinted were the quantities that my dates grew increasingly slurred as the evening went on). One man gave an impassioned reading from JL Carr's wistful novella A Month in the Country, and another, championing Tom Wolfe's seminal novel about greed and consumerism, The Bonfire of the Vanities, carried his copy on his iPhone – an irony I found quietly amusing.
The atmosphere was relaxed, the company congenial and the conversation pleasant – but did I, oh did I, find love? Alas no – I did, however, add to my reading list. I sincerely hope that more small independent bookshops, libraries and literary societies follow LSE's lead and start to hold literary speed-dating events. Meanwhile, I'll just have to keep looking for that tall, handsome, man reading Middlemarch on the train.
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