One of the wonderful things about 21st century Britain is that, by and large, there is a space for everyone, and everyone is able to find someone who fits their little niche, and to realise that all ideal partners are not the same.
This has led, quite rightly, to men seeing women as more than just their physical attributes, seeking instead an equal life partner with who to share interests, discussion, past-times.
There is a poem, written and performed by Mark Grist, which exemplifies this, whereby the narrator explains that he is not interested in tits or arse, but he just wants “a girl who reads.”
While this is all very good and admirable, at the same time isn’t it just another objectification, another reduction and oversimplification of a complicated individual into one facet, into a stereotype, like the much maligned manic-pixie-dream-girl?
Don’t get me wrong, I love girls who read. Reading features largely in my life and anyone else who’s into books – the quiet, the smell, the taset – is a fellow traveller. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to be someone I have a natural romantic affinity for.
And I doubt any girl would appreciate being labelled as simply ‘a Girl who Reads’. Wouldn’t it be better to be a girl who happens to read, along with many other traits both visible and concealed, some of which may take many months to discover or to understand?
It’s a fetishisation, albeit an admirable one, it’ not necessarily an accurate marker of someone’s merit as a human being that they read. Someone could spend all their life reading terrible airport novels, the literary equivalent of scoffing an Iceland microwave doner kebab in front of I’m a Nonentity Get Me Out Of Here, or they could never read, due to their charity work for Medecins Sans Frontieres and their time spent caring for their aged parents.
People use the trope of a Girl who Reads as short hand for a romantic, as this wonderful fey being, but what of the cold, hard business woman who is reading solely profit-and-loss ledgers or books for self improvement, and what of the dyslexic who loves books on tape (CD? MP3? Podcast?) or foreign language films?
Yes, reading’s great, but that’s not to the detriment of everything else. I’m also a big fan of girls with good legs. Do I have to choose between the two? I don’t go round going “Awright mate, tits or arse, whadda yer prefer?”, but I’m not going to fall hopelessly in love with a girl just because she commutes with a Daunt Books tote bag.
There is a much debated essay, by Charles Warnke, entitled You Should Date an Illiterate Girl. Warnke calls it a work of fiction, not to be taken at face value, because an uncritical reader would see it as nothing more than railing against Girls who Read, as they will only have unrealistically high ideals.
What the piece really does is point up clichés surrounding reading culture, and romance, and show that there is always more to reality than to even the most intricately woven story. There is possibly a kernel of truth in the hackneyed idea of the scatterbrained, bookish type who doesn’t notice the bin is overflowing, some may find a lack of worldly awareness endearing, but again it’s only one aspect of a Janus-like personality.
These clichés are explored, from the other side of the looking glass, by Rosemarie Urquico in You Should Date a Girl Who Reads. However, the portrait she paints is almost as unbearable as the one she is railing against. Perhaps it’s true, “a girl who reads knows that failure always leads up to the climax”, but sometimes it just leads to failure.
The problem for any underdog is that they have to be a lover of fiction, as in reality the underdog has no chance without the sop of ‘romance’ and what some perceive as ‘love’. It’s only in the fairy tales that the swineherd gets the princess, or the girl from the cinders finds her prince. But that same romantic ideal could be the very thing that pushes you back to obscurity, once your love realises you’re exactly the man you appear to be.
In his poem, Grist does very well to highlight all the wonderful things about a girl who reads. But really, they are just the things that any person who reads could identify with, anyone who has pored over the ingredients on a ketchup bottle, or read the same scrawl on a school desk 20 times over just to keep reading. Whether that’s a good thing is another question.
His girl who reads sounds lovely, he deserves her and if he hasn’t found her, I hope he does. I also hope she enjoys attending rap battles and making education interesting. And I hope they have their differences too, because otherwise where’s the fun in the similarities?
My advice? Girls who read are great, but I hope you can afford their booze and coffee habits. And, Miss Urquico, double that for the girls who write.
Keep your girls who read, I’ve got a good book.
*I really meant it about all the best to Mark, the poem is excellent and I love girls who read, it’s just there is always so much more as well.
Bukowski would agree.