“Read any good books lately?” It’s a corny question, but one that has been successfully vanquishing conversational lulls at cocktail parties since Jackie Collins was knee-high to Barbara Cartland.
This holiday season, a new and perverse variation on this age-old standby is making the rounds at Manhattan soirées. Instead of “Read any good books lately?”, you are far more likely to hear: “Pretended to read any good books lately?”
Yes, this season it’s all about faking it—i.e., carrying around the “It” book but not actually bothering to read it. Improving-your-image-by-deluding-others-into-thinking-you’re-reading-something-meaningful is the new black. It’s the literary equivalent of the Live 8 concerts, where you don’t have to actually do anything (e.g., read the book or give to the poor)—you just have to appear to care.
I first noticed this trend last spring at the Four Seasons Resort in Palm Beach. Picture the scene: My bloke and I were having a spot of lunch at the informal beachfront café when we noticed the actress Kate Hudson “reading” a book on a poolside sun bed. Suddenly, the lovely actress let out a sigh, put down her reading matter—leaving it prominently displayed—and skipped off to jet-ski with her rocker husband and various Fred Segalish Hollywood chums. After lunch, my Jonny and I strolled over to ascertain the title of the lofty tome, poignantly opened at page 1. What was the classic that had “held” her attention so fleetingly? Why, Ovid’s Metamorphoses!
Toting around some impressively incomprehensible chunk of literature as an accessory has since gathered momentum in the fashion community, a milieu generally acknowledged to be populated by “magazine readers.” Top of the fashion pretend-to-reads is anything by Elfriede Jelinek. For those of you who are ungroovy enough to admit an unfamiliarity with her name, Frau Jelinek is that Austrian chick who won the 2004 Nobel Prize in literature for “her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power.” (How do you say “whatever!” auf Deutsch?)
After her name was tossed around like a string of tulle-covered Lanvin pearls by various fashion folk—including Cathy Horyn of The New York Times—Ms. Jelinek’s tomes quickly became the fall accessory du jour. This embrace by the fashion community is made all the more incomprehensible by the fact that the dour Elfriede, a self-confessed mentally ill agoraphobic and proud anti-American who seems to have about as much joie de vivre as a cinderblock, is the antithesis of a giggly fashion person.
It is for this reason that I am inclined to regard Ms. Jelinek as something of a nemesis. Having always subscribed to the idea that life was like a go-go box—you jump on it wearing top ’n’ bottom false eyelashes and jiggle around until you eventually fall off—I am philosophically at odds with La Jelinek: Her grim, angst-ridden worldview suggests that life is like a concrete bunker where maquillage is verboten.
Though schadenfreude runs counter to my aforementioned go-go view of life, it was hard for me to conceal my glee when, this past October, departing Nobel judge Knut Ahnlund described Ms. Jelinek’s work as a “mass of text shoveled together without trace of artistic structure” and, more shockingly, suggested that none of his Nobel co-panelists had actually bothered to slog through her oeuvre.
I have a copy of Ms. Jelinek’s 1988 novel The Piano Teacher, which I have attempted to read without success, but have used—with great success—to accessorize my new Barneys New York Co-op brown corduroy jacket ($295). The ochre-tinted photo of Isabelle Huppert snogging her pupil on the floor of a grim, white municipal French bathroom—a still from the 2001 movie based on the book—complements my ensemble and my skin tone. (Yes, you guessed it: I’m an Autumn.)
Other books worth toting: Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs (Free Press, $25) suggests that you, the carrier, might be au courant with the latest twists and turns in feminist philosophy, to mention nothing of the fact that it looks great with this season’s black clothing. Meanwhile, the rich vintagey look of Mao: The Unknown Story (RoughCut), by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday (Knopf, $35), works well with this seasons’ denim and velvet looks.
For a book that will enhance any outfit, I refer you to my husband’s new offering, The Jonathan Adler Book—My Prescription for Anti-Depressive Living (Regan Books, $34.95, at fine bookstores and Jonathan Adler emporiums everywhere). Though carrying my Jonny’s book isn’t going to make you appear in the least bit intellectual, reading it and perusing the luscious images might help you to reduce your Zoloft dosage. With its chartreuse cover and compendium of happy-chic interiors and decorating tips, The Jonathan Adler Book is the Anti-Jelinek.
Am sending a copy to Elfriede. Since she’s stuck at home all the time, I figure she could use a few decorating ideas, not to mention a few chuckles.