Books are the true aphrodisiacs of our times

Many affairs have been jump-started by the gentle caress of fingers down the gutter of a book
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The Independent Online

Loneliness is in the air. At this time of the year, when even the pigeons on the street are strutting and cooing, a sharp yearning for companionship is evident in the most surprising places – on a crowded underground train, in a football crowd during a dreary end-of-season game, in the eyes of a Channel Five newscaster. Almost everyone, it seems, is suddenly on the lookout – if not for a mate, then at least someone to help them make it through the next few weeks, to take the sting out of spring.

Loneliness is in the air. At this time of the year, when even the pigeons on the street are strutting and cooing, a sharp yearning for companionship is evident in the most surprising places – on a crowded underground train, in a football crowd during a dreary end-of-season game, in the eyes of a Channel Five newscaster. Almost everyone, it seems, is suddenly on the lookout – if not for a mate, then at least someone to help them make it through the next few weeks, to take the sting out of spring.

Old hands at the mating game will know that the key requirement in finding a partner is not a flash new suit, a trip to the hairdresser or a new and interesting hobby. The answer lies in a book, preferably a novel. There is little that is more quietly and effectively seductive than the sight of another human being caught up in the world of the imagination. Reading implies sensitivity, self-containment, hidden depths of some kind or another – the sort of things which, if not actually guaranteeing a mate, reduce the odds of him or her being a bore, a time-waster or an out-and-out psycho.

A paperback can send out the wrong message – that you may prefer your partners like your books, fast and disposable – but quietly reading a good hardback novel suggests seriousness and financial stability and is as open a mating display as a peacock spreading its tail feathers.

So there could be little surprise at the news that reading clubs have become for the new century what singles bars were to the 1970s. So accepted is the new trend that a rather good new sitcom, The Book Group, has been based on the premise that those who gather together to discuss books usually have more urgent and less cerebral pleasures in mind.

Just as writing has become a communal activity with the arrival of creative writing classes, so reading is now no longer solitary. More startlingly, the advent of the book as an erotic accessory has turned booksellers into romantic advisers whose opinions are sought on how precisely to find a partner through literature. "People are tired of the meat-market atmosphere epitomised by bars and nightclubs," a man from Politico's told the press this weekend. "At book clubs, readers can discreetly eye up the possibilities."

Yet, as The Book Group shows, there are dangers in trying to pull at a reading group if you happen not to be a reader. The physical act of reading, for example, can be teasingly seductive when practised by those who have handled books all their lives – many affairs have been jump-started by the way a page is turned, or the gentle caress of fingers down the gutter of book. But licking a finger to flick over the page or briskly cracking a book's spine can send out all the wrong messages. It is similarly unwise to move one's lips while reading a scene, however fascinating it may be, and one should avoid becoming so absorbed in a story that the expression on one's face becomes slack and gormless. You can quickly go off someone if you have caught them in the intimate act of reading with their mouth moronically open.

The choice of book to be discussed can have a direct influence on the romantic effectiveness of reading group. Dear old crowd-pleasers like Bonfire of the Vanities, Captain Corelli's Mandolin or Birdsong are fine but suggest a certain lack of originality. On the other hand, it is unwise to propose any title that belongs to a particular genre. Briskly violent thrillers in which the narrator refers to characters by their surnames will put off those of a sensitive nature. Romances can have a strangely anaphrodisiac effect. Fantasies will send everyone to sleep.

Oddly, comic novels are almost always a mistake. As on a first date, a certain seriousness should inform the discussion at a reading group. Far from bringing people together, laughter almost always divides them. Those chortling at the battle-of-the-sexes aperçus of Howard Jacobson, Martin Amis or Mark Leyner will be met by stony stares from across the room. The skittish men-are-bastards routines of Cynthia Heimel or Kathy Lette will have a similarly alienating effect.

Eventually, you will have to speak at your reading group, but as many reviewers and publishers have found out, it is not only unnecessary to have read the book under discussion but it but can be actively unhelpful. It is the quality and sincerity rather than the content of one's reaction which is important. If someone reads out a favourite passage, do not go "Aaaahhh", as if looking into a pram, but comment on its coruscating emotional impact. Avoid saying "I really liked the hero" in favour of commending the integrity of the author's characterisation. Foreign terms like tour de force or bildungsroman may be used, but sparingly.

Finally, after the reading club has disbanded for the night, do not make your move too quickly. In life, as in literature, speed reading should be avoided.

terblacker@aol.com

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