Literary Speed Dating – Victoria State Library

Came across this article I had filed sometime back on speed-dating in the Victoria State Library. Have you ever fallen someone based on what he/she read? Admitably so, I’m a klutz, and it has happened to me in the past, though I should have seen the signs. I know I am wrong now, you are not always what you read, especially when you merely own the book and more time is spent with martinis and olives. But I am different now. I fell in love once with a boy who claimed to be forever reading Nietzsche and a certain book of poetry. I loved someone once who uttered Kate Atkinson as one of his favourite authors, and clung to his reading list like a messiah. But maybe the truth is that I had always been looking for the story of the person, a laughable impulse to see a sudden glimmer of a straying mind in the second between paella and the next gulp of evening sangria. The men between the pages are not always more appealing.

A week or so ago I took myself to dinner at Mario’s in Brunswick Street, accompanied by Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5. At a table nearby, a handsome young man sat poring over a novel of his own. He was oblivious to those around him, chewing on his fingernails, utterly immersed.

I fell in love with him instantly. So it goes.

Is it possible to fall in love with someone simply through their choice of literature? I’d say so. I have tumbled for countless boys and their dog-eared loans. Joel insisted I bone up on Bulgakov; Matty read Bukowski and then wrote countless pages in a similarly liquored-up style; Simon swore by the dusty prose of Tim Winton. I have never fully recovered from the boy who once handed over a copy of John Fante’s Ask the Dust with the whispered insistence, “This will touch you”. He was right and I am forever indebted to his mad Arturo-like passion.

Recommending a book to someone you have a blossoming crush on is an enormous
step for literature obsessives. What does the novel in question say about you? Does the fact that you’re a fan of George P. Pelecanos write you off as some borderline psychotic who will stand over a beloved’s bed with a stabbing knife and a watertight alibi? Does an appreciation of Nicholson Baker’s The Fermata paint you three colours pornographic? Should your copy of Alice Sebold’s Lucky be shelved indefinitely? (“I’m really glad we’re getting along, so I wanted to lend you this incredibly traumatic and graphic story about a rape victim. Call me.”)

When I was told the State Library was running an event they referred to as “literary speed dating” there was no way possible I could let it pass me by. Books and romance are such inevitable bedfellows, and the thought that I may lock eyes with some brainy Lothario carrying a copy of Raymond Chandler’s Cathedral pretty much made every one of my senses zing. The premise was so beautifully simple it was poetic: bring along a loved, loathed or recently read novel. Partner up for a five-minute discussion with a member of the opposite sex, breathlessly debate the merits of Peter Cook’s biographer versus the incessant punning of Kathy Lette, rub feet lasciviously
underneath the table, live happily ever after, fin. The idea of stepping away from the kinds of “so what do you do” conversations best confined to city bars with a 6am licence was just too enticing. I was in, I was in, I was in. Jeeves, hand me my bookmark.

Having never attended a speed dating night of any description, I could only guess at what to wear. It seemed simple enough – less plunging neckline, more flowery ’50s pin-up. Red lipstick and stockings. The book choice, however, was an entirely different matter. I consulted with anyone, everyone. Cab drivers and waiters. Dog-walkers. My best friend Gabi acted as head therapist.

“What about Martin Amis? You love Martin Amis.”

“His characters are all aloof arseholes. It’ll give the wrong impression.”

“He is a bit cold, isn’t he?”

“What about Bliss?”

She looked dubious.

“Peter Carey?”

“What’s wrong with it? It’s a love story.”

“Between a prostitute and a man losing his mind.”

“So?”

Another of her looks.

“There’s a brother-sister incest scene too.”

“Oh. I forgot about that.”

Eventually it came down to Fante and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. It was pointed out to me (by more than one person, rudely) that both books featured an essentially deranged lead character – Fante’s Bandini driven to distraction by his passion for the troubled Camilla, while Toole’s Ignatius J. Reilly was simply a maddeningly overblown pompous genius. If any potential paramour ran screaming, so be it. The writing in both novels set my heart to swelling every time I had the honour of spiritually ingesting it. I wanted to share that with someone; to have that moment where two minds connect like Jenga pieces in an orgiastic mutual appreciation of literature. Surely that wasn’t too much to ask.

Then right at the last minute, Dunces in hand, one foot out the door, Gabi speaks.

“What if they hate it?”

“What?”

“What if you meet some wonderful spunko brainiac with a copy of Catch 22 and
they hate Confederacy of Dunces?”

Pause. I hadn’t considered that such people existed. Could the spark of difference be just the thing leading to romance? Would my intended and I wrestle our love into being like the Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd of the library, snarling stanzas and tearing at dust jackets?

“I’ll deal with that when I come to it.”

And – stuffing a copy of David Sedaris’ Naked into my handbag at the last minute like a pair of back-up knickers – I’m gone.

The night itself is slow, earthy, alive. We are in a private room at the library and there are candles lit and peanut clusters of friends whispering nervy excitements. I wait to lock eyes with a gentleman clutching a matching copy of John Kennedy Toole’s masterpiece, leading to a slow-motion balletic run across the room and an intense but discreet tongue-kissing session behind a shelf of modern feminist poetry. This, needless to say, does not instantly eventuate.

What does is a fascinating look into the minds of readers, male and female. We are seated at a long and grand table, divided by sexes like tittering wallflowers. The Seeking Same participants are given their own section. A girl sitting two people away from me is holding a copy of Slaughterhouse 5.

“I’m reading that at the moment!” I say excitedly.

She looks uninterested. She’s not here to mingle with lady booklovers.

The two-piece jazz band is irritatingly loud. The emcee makes a couple of lame jokes about bringing along American Psycho. Tense laughter. I am seated across from an enormous gentleman in a suit and tie. He is holding a copy of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. He inhales deeply.

Your time starts, now.

Men come and go; pages whirring. The music stops and starts. One by one, I am presented with a variety of male courters holding a variety of novels. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. In Cold Blood. The Michael Palin Diaries.

“Oh, lovely,” I say when I see the Palin. “What’s it like?”

He glances down at the shiny hardback. Picks absently at an Angus and Roberston price sticker.

“I don’t know, I haven’t read it. To be honest I just thought it looked OK so I picked it up on my way here and …” he trails off, shrugging.

There is an awkward pause.

“So what do you do?” he asks eventually, trying to surreptitiously look down my top before our five minutes is up.

I am yet to find the elusive heart-literature connection, though I am presented with some fascinating choices. Whoever told one young man he should bring along The Coming of the Third Reich as his amorous placard was clearly having a lend of him. Additionally, the gentleman toting a copy of The Story of O and an accompanying leery expression appears to be making no friends whatsoever.

“I thought it would be a conversation starter. I mean, we’re not here for fun are we?” he says defiantly.

Third from last is a man who holds a thin, glossy tome. Daywalks around Melbourne. I ask if rambling is a particular passion of his.

“Not really. But if you’re free on the weekend …” he smiles, tapping the guidebook.

I can’t help but feel disappointed. There are some beautiful men with awful books, and some awful men holding frankly magnificent pieces of writing. An adoration of fine scribes can be such a random gift.

Eventually we all peel off and trip out into the night exhausted, after posting secret ballots as to who we rather fancied, who we abhorred, who we want to lie naked next to immersed in volumes of Roald Dahl til the end of time. My literate love may have evaded me that night, but there are a thousand more dinners, a thousand more novels, a thousand more precious, random moments. In the meantime I will bed Arturo, befriend Adrian Mole, dine with Ignatius and laugh helplessly with Bryson. Betrothed, for now, to the men within my pages.

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One response to “Literary Speed Dating – Victoria State Library

  • Alucard

    “But maybe the truth is that I had always been looking for the story of the person, a laughable impulse to see a sudden glimmer of a straying mind in the second between paella and the next gulp of evening sangria. The men between the pages are not always more appealing.”

    Achtung. This lady speaks the truth. For a hopeless romantic, love is more ephemeral than tangible, more fleeting than eternal, and more fiction than reality.

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