My ideal man doesn’t exist. This, at least, is what I had to conclude after visiting alikewise.com, the much-ballyhooed new site for “dating by the book,” which purports to match people based on their taste in literature. Matt Sherman, one of the site’s founders, told the AP that the idea came to him after he broke up with a girlfriend a few years ago. Dreaming about his ideal woman, he imagined her as someone who had read The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s study of randomness and “the highly improbable.” “Books are intimate and personal and revealing,” he said in an interview with Canada’s National Post. “And they are great conversation starters, in the real world and online.” His business partner, Matt Masina, put it a little more graphically. “I had been an avid online dater and there was always that moment of truth when I would be left alone for a few minutes with the person’s bookshelf,” he said. “It would always be scary if the shelf was full of self help and ‘dating’ books. Stuff like He’s Just Not That Into You.”
I was charmed by Sherman’s choice of reading material, because Taleb’s concept of the “black swan” is a perfect metaphor for the serendipity of finding a romantic partner: an “outlier” event, Taleb explains, “outside the realm of regular expectations” that “carries an extreme impact” and becomes explainable only in retrospect. Isn’t that more or less a spot-on description of falling in love? So I headed to the site, hopeful that the highly improbable might happen to me.
Alas. The first writer I put in—W.G. Sebald—turned up no hits at all. “We expanded the search to include other books relating to ‘Sebald,’” the site helpfully informed me, bringing up the profile of a 39-year-old man in New York (good start) seeking a woman between 18 and 48 (I qualify). Unfortunately, my prospective match seemed to have missed the point entirely: his profile lists two books by Michel Houellebecq, about each of which he commented only “It was ok.” My heart beat faster upon seeing his third choice: Quo Vadis, by Henryk Sienkiewicz. A man who reads Polish epics might be a man for me! But it sank again upon reading his comment: “This is an ok read.”
I was hoping for someone a little more articulate. Time to expand the possibilities. I put in Philip Roth, Emily Brontë, Kafka, but the pickings were still slim. A 35-year-old New Yorker is currently reading the new David Mitchell novel and finds The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto “sexy.” Hmm. I was intrigued by a 36-year-old Brooklynite who put up The Annotated Lolita and The Catcher in the Rye (“I wonder how phonies feel when they read this book”) until I saw that he also likes Women Who Run With the Wolves. Clicking on Salinger led me to a different guy with some decent choices, including Orhan Pamuk, The Black Dahlia, and Herodotus. Unfortunately, he lives in Australia.
We know that people don’t necessarily present themselves in the most honest light in their online-dating profiles. Still, the majority of the virtual bookshelves fall into two categories: mind-numbingly conventional or bewilderingly schizophrenic. I learned, not to my surprise, that hipsters all over the country read Murakami, Kundera (the site offers no statistics, but in my unscientific perusal The Unbearable Lightness of Being seemed to pop up more often than any other book), and García Márquez. On the other side of the spectrum, a search for Elie Wiesel led me to a woman who lists Night and Survival in Auschwitz together with Bridget Jones’s Diary and The Devil Wears Prada. But she put up Wislawa Szymborska, too, so I’m willing to forgive her. (Note to the guy in Brooklyn who likes Szymborska as well as Clarice Lispector, Graham Greene, and Bolaño: I can teach you how to pronounce her name.)
I sympathize with Sherman’s desire to find a mate who has also read his favorite book. If one reason we read, as Jonathan Franzen has said, is to insert ourselves into a larger community of writers and readers, then naturally we want the person we love to join us there. The writers with whom we identify most deeply can come to feel like extensions of ourselves: if my beloved doesn’t like my favorite book, isn’t he also rejecting me? Conversely, could I love a man who doesn’t love The Emigrants, or Anna Karenina, or any of the other books that have influenced most deeply the way I understand the world?
But there’s also something narcissistic about choosing a partner based on the congruency of his or her tastes with one’s own. In an essay that appeared in the Times Book Review earlier this year, Cathleen Schine wrote poignantly about her exhilaration when, newly married and sensitive to the gaps in her reading history, she realized that her husband’s bookcase was hers for the taking. “It reached from one wall to the other, from floor to ceiling. It had been culled and collected by a person of knowledge and taste, a product of Columbia’s core curriculum, and ... it was arranged alphabetically. I started at the upper left hand corner (Jane Austen! J. R. Ackerley!) and worked my way to the lower right (Waugh! Wodehouse! Woolf!).” When they split up, Schine continues, and she found a different partner, “there waiting for me was a new bookcase full of other books.” Much of the joy in new love comes from the excitement of mutual discovery, of opening one’s mind to another person who opens his or her own in turn. A subject that never interested us before is suddenly fascinating, because the beloved is obsessed with it; and explaining our own obsessions to another person can help illuminate them all over again.
So if Matt Sherman doesn’t find his Black Swan-reading mate (the only woman who lists it on her profile lives in Canada), I suggest that he expand his search to include other books related to it: like Black Swan Green, David Mitchell’s novel about a bookish adolescent boy with a stutter growing up in 1980s England. I liked it; and so did Janet in Toronto, a fortyish book blogger with a chocolate lab. Maybe he should read it—and then drop her a line.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor of The New Republic.