A few weeks ago, a friend who grew up in Communist Eastern Europe told me he thought the "product endorsements" on social networking sites like Facebook -- those lists of each member's favorite books, bands and movies -- were paid for. You provide a plug for someone's book alongside your vital statistics? Surely you get paid, he reasoned -- this is America! He found this practice to be wonderfully efficient: In his eyes, companies had figured out a way to cut out the high-priced firms and just let people advertise to one another. It was, he thought, absolutely brilliant.
I gently explained that these plugs were entirely voluntary. But why do we spend so much time crafting such elaborate summaries of our buying habits? It gets us dates, for one. If a girl posts a halfway-decent photo and expresses a taste for George Saunders, "Lolita" and the Clash, she is guaranteed an e-mail asking her to elaborate over drinks next week. (I speak from experience.) But the prospect of trolling for dates doesn't explain the zeal with which people throw themselves into perfecting these lists, as anyone who's received an e-mail notification informing them that a faraway friend has just removed "The Flight of the Conchords" from her list of favorite TV shows can attest. We don't shill for profit; we post these lists to give people a sense of who we are. We plot points on a graph and hope it -- we -- will be interpreted correctly.
Using consumption habits as a sort of self-expression shorthand has become so ubiquitous that we don't even blink. Hi, I'm Megan, I'm from New York, and I like the Jam, Prince, Nina Simone, mid-1990s D.C. punk, "The Colbert Report," "Little House on the Prairie," Edith Wharton's "The House of Mirth," "Middlemarch," "The Moviegoer," Kazuo Ishiguro, Joan Didion's essay "On Self-Respect" and Jane Jacobs' "The Death and Life of Great American Cities."
Too much, too soon, you say? Lately I've been thinking it's a bit too much -- period. The "I like this = I'm like this" cultural moment, as Virginia Postrel succinctly put it in "The Substance of Style," has turned us into self-handicapping snobs: Since we've taken so much care to craft our own perfect list, we feel more entitled to shrug off anyone whose list doesn't similarly impress. Would you be interested in someone who identifies with "The Secret"? We're also keeping our distance from a whole array of cultural output because we think it sends the wrong message about who we are and what we want to be.
I'll stick with books, because I care most about them. In my pretentious literary circles, the reluctance to pick up anything beyond the aesthetic boundaries of our faves lists -- which run roughly from Dostoevski to Geoff Dyer -- is especially pernicious when it comes to the self-improvement genre. No one wants to be seen in this section of the bookstore. If you even mention the book "How to Win Friends and Influence People" to these people -- as I have numerous times in the last year -- it's possible to make someone visibly flinch; it's as if the person you're talking to never expected to be at the same party with someone who read such books. I have friends who've endured numerous romantic humiliations who wouldn't, on pain of death, read relationship advice. When I worked in book publishing, I never thought of reading a tome of business advice, even during moments when the rising fumes of fetid office politics brought tears to my eyes. I was above that. I was hoping the right workplace strategy would reveal itself through a particularly nuanced reading of Gogol's "Dead Souls."
Of course one could say that the pretentious and literary like their dysfunction, and so their reluctance to pick up anything that's not them, even if it might help, shouldn't worry anyone. (And you could also say that most self-help or career advice books are too facile to be of help. More on that later.) But there's also the possibility that over-identification with our preferred products weakens our political instincts.
A few years ago I attended a panel discussion at a local college organized in part to let people blow off steam in the wake of the 2002 elections. I don't remember the exact topic, but I do remember that Janeane Garofalo was there, as well as famous flat-tax crusader Grover Norquist. Whenever Norquist started speaking, hisses would emanate from the crowd, and eventually, decorum gave way and scattered hisses devolved into outright booing. But the booers were abruptly shushed by a noted leftie on the panel -- not Garofalo -- who interjected that maybe folks ought to be quiet. Maybe just listen for a second. Norquist's political acumen, the noted leftie said, was about as keen as Lenin's, and if we really wanted to put our high-minded ideals into effect, perhaps we ought to be less precious about what ideas we allowed ourselves to hear.
And perhaps reading Norquist's "Leave Us Alone" could help someone organize a push for federally subsidized childcare. But the notion that what we're reading says something about us continually trips us up. Recently my conservative father suggested I pick up "You Are the Message" by Roger Ailes. Ailes is the president of the Fox News Channel and a former Republican political consultant. I made a face and started to protest that the prospect was noxious to me. My father replied that sound advice was sound advice and perhaps I shouldn't worry so much about the source.
Was he really suggesting that the pointers in "How to Win Friends and Influence People" would be worth following if, say, Robert Mugabe had authored it? Not quite. He was saying that if I'd decided a book had nothing to offer me before I'd read a single word, then perhaps I wasn't as cosmopolitan as I liked to imagine I was. Then he started boasting about how back in the mid-'70s, he forced his white suburban Minnesota high school students to read the Black Panthers' Ten-Point Program, too.
This conversation helped to dislodge some of my reluctance to pick up a book that was not "me." I didn't buy Ailes' book, but I did read it -- cover to cover, alone in my bedroom. Because while I was emotionally and intellectually ready to receive whatever wisdom Ailes' book offered, I was not prepared to be seen anywhere in public with it.
When I started asking around, I found that quite a few people were consuming "off-message" books, but only in the privacy of their own homes. As a painfully shy and awkward teen, my friend Ben procured a copy of Larry King's "How to Talk to Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere," hoping it would help him get through high school's more trying moments. But he was so embarrassed to have this book -- he even worried what his parents might think -- that he kept it hidden under his bed as if it were "Barely Legal."
Once when an ex-boyfriend was in the shower, I found a copy of Harville Hendrix's classic "Keeping the Love You Find: A Guide for Singles" in his apartment. It too was under the bed. I didn't say anything about my discovery at the time because, one, I had no business looking in that drawer, and two, to out him as something other than the self-contained, emotionally robust, Harvard-educated Master of the Universe that he presented himself as struck me as more than our fragile relationship could handle. (After he dumped me, incidentally, I bought a paperback of Lama Zopa Rinpoche's "Transforming Problems Into Happiness" and stashed it on the shelf behind the collected works of Philip Roth.)
Closeted self-improvement sessions have a whiff of sadness to them. But those who undergo them are far better off than those who can't bring themselves to. Too clever for "dumb" books, they never learn that even banal prose can illuminate experience. Or, as music critic Carl Wilson writes, that "stepping deliberately outside one's own aesthetics" can be an exercise in shaking off ugly social prejudices.
You have to ask yourself, who benefits most from the "I like this = I'm like this" cultural moment? Apple? McSweeney's? Not the consumer, I imagine. That educated people are choosing not to access vast swaths of available help and information is hardly cause for glee. It would be awfully nice, instead, to read whatever you please without fear of being branded one thing or another.
I asked a journalist friend who, as he puts it, "has to read a lot of embarrassing books for work" -- most recently a coffee-table book celebrating Miller Lite ads, and yes, he took it on the subway -- how he copes. "Well, I'm so used to it now that the stares don't faze me." But he does abstain from the practice of posting his lists of favorites -- on Facebook or anyplace else. "I don't feel I'm capable of truthfulness there. There are the books I like, and the books I want people to think I like. A truthful list would probably range from Kingsley Amis to Michael Crichton. Would I post that? Would that seem too contrived (ooh, how very high-low!)? I would need a therapist to sort it out."
Or, we could just skip this fixation on product signifiers altogether. I propose a movement in another direction -- one in which we spend less time trying to fashion portraits of ourselves as curious, reflective, wide-ranging intellects, and more time … reflecting and ranging wide. Toward that end, here are a few short exercises that might help:
Go to the nearest bookstore and meander over to the self-improvement section. Stand in the aisle for 15 seconds. Leave. Proceed upstairs to the fiction and literature section. Browse. Come back downstairs to the self-improvement section and remain in that aisle for a full minute, during which time you must pick up one book and hold it long enough to read the back cover copy.
Start tossing around the word "research." If someone finds you holding an embarrassing book, you say, "Oh, I'm reading this for research." Most people will not inquire further. (I learned this when brandishing "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." For research.)
Take that book out from under the bed and put it on the bookshelf.
Type up a shadow list of products, one that really captures you. (My list, for instance, would be: ChapStick, Kleenex, $9 bottles of red wine, pumpkin walnut muffins, Mrs. Meyer's Dish Soap, and boy-short underwear from American Apparel.) Print it out. Stare at the list. Take a deep breath. Let yourself be humbled. Then toss it in the recycling bin. Step outside and take a walk.