I have no idea what your New Year’s Resolutions are, but if your house is like most houses that I’ve been in, I can offer some suggestions. In most of the houses in which I am a guest, I look around and think “Yes, yes, this is very nice house, but what they really need around here is some more books.” I do not say this out loud, because most of the time I wish to return to the house, but this is probably my most common thought, typically followed by “Stop apologizing that your house isn’t clean. It is, and I wouldn’t care even if it wasn’t.”
So, in the odd event that you have decided to ignore resolutions about diet, exercise, finally purchasing healthcare, or watching all the stuff that’s been piling up in your Netflix queue, and you’ve decided that what you really need to do is to own more books, however, then please allow me to help. What we don’t want, here, is for you to walk into a bookstore without a plan, or you might end up accidentally purchasing all of the Twilight books or one of those enormous coffee table books that your Aunt Fran gave you last Christmas when she couldn’t think of anything else.
Books, obviously, can say things to you when you’re reading them. The problem with a book – assuming, of course, that it’s not an electronic book – is that when it’s lying around, it’s saying stuff about you. If you’re the sort of person that is willing to leave a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey on your living room table, this says something about you. 1 Somehow, this sort of statement is far more disturbing than being the sort of person that just wants to read it. 2
So, with all that in mind, here’s some unusually unhelpful book-buying advice:
Cookbooks: You should have some cookbooks lying around in order to give the impression that at least some of the meals that you eat at home do not come from the Chinese take-out place that’s just down the road. The type of cookbook you buy, of course, can make a difference: if you buy one that features the right sort of ethnic food, it can make you seem adventurous and exotic. Thai and Vietnamese cookbooks are good for this, particularly if you’re trying to give the impression that you’re a world traveler. The cookbook, let’s not forget, is substantially less expensive than the plane ticket. Or you can get a copy of The Joy of Cooking which is probably the cookbook that your mother had around the kitchen when you were, let’s face it, much younger than you are now. Owning a copy of this doesn’t commend your sense of adventure, but it says that you like comfort food and you want to cook like your mom did when you were growing up. 3
Anything by Julia Child is excellent, as long as no one expects you to actually cook from it. French food is never out-of-style, and if you buy a used copy, you can tell your impressed guests that you got it from your grandmother.
Cookbooks featuring celebrity chefs, while less useful for actual cooking, can be a better conversation piece. Pay extra for a chef that your guests have heard of. On the other hand, I would avoid cookbooks featuring celebrities that are not known for being chefs. If your kitchen has a cookbook that features Gwyneth Paltrow, for example, this gives the impression that you’re far more interested in being a rich person than you are in cooking good food for your guests. While this may be true, it’s best to avoid this impression.
Biographies: Whose biography you’re willing to read – or at least purchase, and leave on the living room table, to give the impression that you have read – can say a lot about you. Nelson Mandela? Fantastic. Thomas Jefferson? Great. Snooki? No, no, not good at all, and you should not leave this on your table. 4
Sports biographies can also be interesting, although there are compelling reasons to avoid books by or about superstars: I think we can all hazard a guess that a book about Alex Rodriguez might have interesting parts, and while it might have parts about baseball, the parts that are interesting are not going to have anything to do with baseball, and the parts about baseball aren’t going to be remotely interesting. On the other hand, I think that we can safely assume that a book by Peyton Manning would likely have no interesting parts at all.
If you’re going to purchase sports autobiographies, I’d recommend that you procure ones by more obscure players such as Nate Jackson or Dirk Hayhurst. It makes you appear to be a more serious sports fan than you probably are, as presumably you wouldn’t buy an autobiography of someone you have not heard of. And should you actually decide to read them, these books are substantially more interesting.
P. G. Wodehouse: I do not know anyone whose library would not be improved by swapping out all of their Danielle Steel and Nicholas Sparks novels with a bunch of Wodehouse. You may not have heard of Wodehouse, but you’ve probably heard of his most famous creation: Jeeves. The stereotype of the supremely competent British butler stepping in to save the bumbling rich guy wasn’t a stereotype before Wodehouse invented it. The resulting books are one of the rare finds in literature: books that English professors will tell you are wonderful that are actually fun to read. No one understates incompetence as elegantly as Wodehouse, and his books can be just as fun as modern American humor, but bring a bunch of class to the table, as well. And looking like an Anglophile is always fun, and in the right company, can give the impression of culture and sophistication. Cultivate a British accent for bonus points, here, and use it whenever you discuss Wodehouse or quote Winston Churchill.
Will Wodehouse books make you cultured? Well, no, not really, but neither are a lot of things that aren’t nearly so much fun as reading Wodehouse. But they are the sort of books that cultured people read when they’re not trying to be cultured, so they make you appear as if you’re cultured, but not working hard to give the impression that you are. For many of us, that’s close enough.
Malcolm Gladwell: This isn’t really a genre, at least not for another 20 years, but Gladwell, along with the guys that are writing Freakonomics, are probably the best-known practitioners of the subcategory of non-fiction that is designed to appeal to geeks. Having geek non-fiction scattered around your house can be useful as bait, as it will allow you to determine who is likely to be an interesting party guest and who would likely be happier troubleshooting your wireless printer.
Overall, books like this can be invaluable to have scattered around the house during a party, as the wireless printer guys will get themselves stuck reading them, and are therefore far less likely to hold all the dinner guests hostage by telling long stories that conclude with lines like ” ‘Ah hah,’ I said to myself. ‘Then it occurred to me that there was probably a bug in the compiler!’ ”
You don’t want to sit through one of these stories. Trust me. I’m one of the people that likes to tell them, and I’ve found that telling them is only a good idea if you do not wish to receive any more dinner invitations from anyone present.
Religion: If your idea of a deeply meaningful religious book is The Secret, then I’m not sure you’ve been paying attention, and this is probably all we need to say about that. Let’s move on.
Politics: If you have biographies by any television or radio talk show hosts, or any political book in which the person writing it has put a picture of themselves on the cover, then the best thing that I can recommend is small controlled fires, set well before your dinner guests arrive.
Books of Essays: It can be awfully impressive to leave these sitting around, but there’s an element of risk if you are ever asked to discuss anything in these books, as we both know you’re not going to crack the cover on any of these things. Less risky options are essays that do not generally make reference to much outside themselves, such as a collection of Garrison Keillor’s “Lake Woebegone” monologues. 5 They’re fun to read, to boot. Essays in which other books are discussed can be more risky, as you’ve got substantially more homework to do if anyone wants to discuss the book with you. If you actually read the book, then you’ve got a larger problem of suddenly wanting to read the books that it discusses, and eventually your house may look like two bookmobiles had a head-on collision in your living room. Be careful.
Novels: Here we must tread carefully, for selecting books from this genre can be fraught with peril. Here are some ground rules: (a) if everyone has familiar with it, then it won’t impress very many people, and (b) if no one has heard of it, people may not be really impressed, either. You’re looking for something that something that people have heard of, but they’re not sure why, and they certainly don’t own a copy of it themselves. Dan Brown? Possibly not the best choice. John le Carré? Better. Something you’ve heard them discuss on Morning Edition? Even better. 6
This rule changes somewhat if we’re talking about classics, because if no one has heard of it, then it’s not really a classic. There are also classics that can be interesting to read (and here I’m thinking of anything by Dostoyevsky or Jane Austin), and those that are the exclusive domain of graduate students in the English department (and here I’m thinking of something like Moby Dick). If you’re going to have a copy of Moby Dick around, I’d recommend using it for English graduate student bait. Encourage these people to talk to the folks that are troubleshooting the wireless printer.
So, good luck impressing your friends! Next time we’ll discuss the sort of books that you should buy if you’re actually interested in reading them. There’s a surprising amount of overlap.
- I’m not entirely sure what. [↩]
- And seriously, don’t bother to read it. It’s terrible. [↩]
- I own a copy, which says more good things about my mother than it does about my culinary prowess. [↩]
- I’ve got to assume that this has not sold that well, as I can’t imagine that the intersection between the group of people that are Snooki fans and the group of people that regularly purchase biographies is not a large demographic. [↩]
- This also makes you appear to be a NPR listener, which certainly gives a classier impression than the Blue Collar Comedy channel that we both know is on your XM radio. [↩]
- If you paid attention, you can even discuss the book without having read it! [↩]