Deb Molly Read Books to Impress Boys… and Lied About Them

Dear Cute Boys From My Teens and Early Twenties,

Thank you for all the books, movies, and music you introduced me to. I appreciate your hard work to shape me into the perfect girlfriend share your passions with me. Sometimes I even adopted them as my own (see also: Common, X-Men Movies, Bob Dylan). A few of the books you made me read suggested have become lifelong favorites. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, for instance — I probably wouldn’t have spent the entire summer after ninth grade reading it if I hadn’t wanted so badly to impress you. I remember lying on a pile of suitcases and sleeping bags in the back of my dad’s 1986 Nissan Stanza wagon, struggling to understand Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality as we drove across the same roads Persig had traveled by motorcycle.

Cute Boy, I haven’t seen you in over a decade, but I still love the book.

Unfortunately, your suggestions weren’t always so successful. You were so earnest when you handed me Jonathan Livingston Seagull, murmuring about how it had really changed your life. When you asked about it later, I held your trembling gaze. “It really spoke to me,” I told you. “It just meant… so much.”

“You really understand me,” you said.

Cute Boy, I lied. JLS didn’t mean anything to me. At 16, I found it both simplistic and strange. The grainy gray photos of actual seagulls distracted from the metaphorical aspect of the story. It’s a story about someone who wants to transcend the bounds of ordinary society! But wait — no, maybe it’s actually about seagulls?

Plus, to be honest? I was starting to notice that you were actually kind of a snob, Cute Boy. Some of my best friends were seagulls. Just because someone doesn’t want to transcend their plane of existence doesn’t mean they’re not fun to pass notes with in study hall. Not to mention, Jonathan Livingston Seagull looks down his beak at all the dull boring seagulls who just think of flying as a way to get food. I have news for you, JLS: seagulls gotta eat. And so do people. Sometimes you have to stop trying to transcend the limitations of your small town life and just take a girl to prom.

Cute Boys, a hint: maybe lower the bar a little when you lend me your books. If you preface it with, “This book totally changed my life and shaped me into the person that I am,” and then I read it and think it’s dumb? Sorry, but I’m going to judge you. I’ll probably still think you’re cute, but not as cute as the boy with great taste in literature.

And also? Know your audience. When you handed me Ishmael with evangelistic zeal and promised me it would, like, totally change my life, I was 21. Honeychild, I was raised by liberal hippiefolk; I got on the “Humanity Must Love & Respect Mother Earth” train in elementary school. If you’d given me Ishmael in sixth or seventh grade, I bet it WOULD have, like, totally changed my life. But by senior year of college? I was on the “Question Everything! Truth is Subjective! There Are Many Valid Points In The World and Also Many Ways To Poke Holes Through Arguments!” train by then.

Sorry, Cute Boy, you were way too late with this one. But you were also cute, so when you asked what I thought of the book, I stared deeply into your eyes and murmured, “With gorilla gone, will there be hope for man?”

And finally, my dear, adorable boy, let’s talk about your favorite book ever. The one that inspired you to find yourself and leave it all behind, you know? Into the goddamn Wild. Cute Boys (and I hate to tell you this, but there were SEVERAL of you who wanted me to read this book), I pretended to understand your need to prove yourself against an imaginary “untouched” American wilderness.

In fact, I researched it!

I read articles and books about feminine and masculine constructions of landscape and wilderness and masculinity and manhood, and even as I lied to you about how much I loved this book, I tried to sneak in alternate perspectives on the story. Like: this is pretty uniquely a boy’s story. A girl couldn’t just hitchhike across the country without constantly being in danger of being raped. Also, a girl couldn’t just go out into the Alaskan bush for months on end without packing several boxes of tampons, which she’d then have to bury so as not to attract all kinds of wildlife who might be interested in human blood.

And also? Abandoning your family isn’t heroic, it’s MEAN. And tramping out into the middle of nowhere with NO RESEARCH and NO EXIT PLAN isn’t heroic, it’s hubristic!

I don’t care how cute you are, Cute Boys. These days, if you tell me this is your favorite book? I will probably yell at you about the Myth of the American Adam and lack of coming-of-age ceremonies for boys in our culture and how if you love the wilderness so much you shouldn’t just leave your car in a culvert. And then I will shove some books at YOU: Rebecca Solnit and Annie Dillard and Mary Austin. Barbara Kingsolver and Keri Hulme and Jean Rhys and Stephanie Kallos.

Because here’s the thing, Cute Boys: it’s high time you started reading books in attempt to impress ME.

Love,

Molly

14 thoughts on “Deb Molly Read Books to Impress Boys… and Lied About Them

  1. Molly, I LOVE that you took this angle–this is brilliant and so spot on. Yes! Let’s talk about THOSE books (and movies and bands and…) that we couldn’t wait to embrace (and by embrace, I actually mean blindly accept as my religion without reading more than the jacket flap–at least you READ your books, Molly. That counts for something!)

    I had a crush on a guy in high school who was obsessed with the Tao of Pooh. Then there was my high school English teacher and he recommended a book he thought I’d love (I can’t recall the name of the book but I will NEVER forget the flutter in my heart when he took me aside after class to give it to me–I have no question I loved it, whatever it was.) In college,the boys I adored were all musicians or artists so I don’t recall a lot of recommended reading…but I think now I finally know where my aversion to “Erika, read/watch this–you’ll LOVE it!” comes from! Thanks a lot, boys!

    • Not to mention attempting to cultivate a taste for Guinness and/or cigars to prove that you’re “one of the boys.” One great thing about getting older is never being apologetic for my “girly” taste in beer. I don’t have to choose my drinks to impress anyone!

      • Now you’re talking! My husband brews his own beer so I got on board quick for that man–I will admit I was an easy convert. I love me a dark stout or a porter. (No, I really do–I swear I’m not trying to impress him. I mean, you know, not with beers, anyway.)

        • I might be swayed if I had my own in-house brewer! Personally, I prefer a beer that comes with an orange slice on the rim. 🙂

  2. Molly, my god! Thank you for scripting the comeback I have been wanting to use while arguing with my husband about the ridiculousness of “Into the Wild.” Mean, yes.

    Also, “Broken for You,” by Stephanie Kallos changed my life.

    🙂
    Juliet

  3. Hi, Molly,

    Great post – I like it. I hope you weren’t compelled to hold your tongue in Bob’s…

    I’m curious to hear your thoughts on Hemingway and whether he fits in the progression.

    I do appreciate and enjoy Kinsolver. However, I grow weary of the redundancy of the following plot device: Erudite, independent and aloof woman reluctantly finds love with salt of the earth fellow. Thoughts?

    Cheers,
    Matt

    • Hi Matt! I have complicated feelings about Hemingway (as I imagine many people do!). He brought an awful lot of macho into the “Writer’s Life,” & his shadow looms large. But he also totally respected Gertrude Stein’s opinion as an artist & an equal, and I have to love him for that. (Not to mention the writing itself, obviously.)

      Kingsolver I love most for her biologist’s approach to the land & relationships between humans & nature in her books. I’m not sure I agree with your assessment of her formula, though I would agree that such a formula DOES exist in literature. The only book of hers I can think of that fits that formula is Animal Dreams, though I remember that protag being more neurotic and grieving than erudite & aloof. Also I guess there’s the park ranger in Prodigal Summer who falls in love with the coyote hunter? But there’s also the goat-farming widow and the crotchety old 4H teacher, both of whom are also POVs. Anyway, point being: I love Kingsolver’s landscapes & biology.

  4. I dated one guy during my semester abroad in Stockholm who was kind of snooty-patootie about his reading material. Lucky for me, he liked to do most of the talking, so I could get away with smiling and nodding, adding the occasional “Oh?” to show I paying attention. *grin*

  5. OMG this exact thing happened to me with Anna Karenina. I mean, I liked the book fine. But my high school boyfriend used to tell me how amazing the passages with Vronsky and the field, or something, were. They changed his life. Of course they did. Perhaps I would have appreciated Vronsky and the field (or whatever it was…) if I hadn’t been TRYING so hard to MAKE it change my life. I definitely told him that I, like, totally agreed.

    Sometimes I wonder if he was actually so affected but the book, or just full of it…

    • Yes! And now you’re like, weirdly resentful of it, and it’s tainted by that weirdness? That’s how I feel about Douglas Adams. I like his books FINE, but they are not my religion, & I spent half of high school feeling like I was missing something because I didn’t think they were the BEST. BOOKS. EVER.

      Though I did quite like “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish,” but probably because it was mostly about dolphins. And flying. And kissing.

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