Finding love between the covers
As book-lovers get to grips with a new lonely-hearts website, Fionola Meredithasks whether 'read-dating' could prove more successful than speed-dating when it comes to finding the perfect partner
COULD A SHARED passion for Joyce, Dostoevsky or the Brontës be the foundation for a lifetime of love? Might a mutual swoon over Oscar Wilde's epigrams translate into a lingering clinch? Surely a joint enthusiasm for Dan Brown must be worth a quick snog?
That's what the people at Penguin are banking on. In conjunction with internet dating colossus match.com, the publishing company has just launched a new dating website aimed at book-lovers.
"Discovering that you love the same book or author can instantly make you feel like you've known even a complete stranger for ever - and sometimes make you want to get to know them a whole lot better," purrs the blurb. Readers are invited to "live their own love story", evoking dreamy thoughts of a real-life Mr Darcy - or wanton Lady Chatterley - in the minds of lonely bookworms everywhere. Several Penguin authors, including Niamh Greene and Sinead Moriarty, are already lined up to write articles for the site, which will be promoted in the final pages of more than two million paperback novels.
So how does it work?
Once people have signed up to Penguin's dating website (PenguinDating, at www.penguin.co.uk), they are asked to list in their profile the most recent book they read, and they can also search for suitors with similar literary tastes. Readers can sign up to the Penguin dating service for free, but they have to subscribe in order to contact other members on the site. One month's membership costs £22.80 (€27.90).
"The books we cherish and read over and over . . . say something defining about us and the type of people we are," says Anna Rafferty, Penguin's online marketing manager. It follows, she believes, that if two people have "a complete thunderbolt about the same book", they may well share a deeper emotional connection.
Three good-looking bookish hopefuls are currently featured on the site, to give prospective members a nudge in the right direction: blonde Rachel (24), who's a Nabokov fan; cheery-looking Steve (30), who likes Jack Kerouac; and exotic Shai (37), who name-checks Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Impeccable literary credentials all round there. But surely some members might be tempted to name-drop high-ranking authors: the literary version of claiming that you're 6ft 4in and athletic when you're actually 5ft 6in and asthmatic. You might have Jeremy Clarkson's Don't Stop Me Nowsitting on your bedside table, but wouldn't it sound better to claim that it's Salman Rushdie's latest? Anna Rafferty insists that such deceptions won't be a problem. "We are talking about people who know their books," she says. "Anyone who makes fake claims will soon be found out and have their bluff called."
For some, a favourite book is a real deal-breaker, the test of whether a relationship stands or falls. Writer Jean Hannah Edelstein insists she could never learn to love a man who didn't appreciate White Noise, Don DeLillo's postmodernist classic. "There's no shame, I don't think, in holding out for someone who understands one's literary tastes," she writes. "Relationships may be temporary, but books - really good books, the books you really love - stay part of your life a good deal longer."
For others, the reverse is the case: the appearance of a disliked book or writer at the top of a prospective partner's list of favourites could mean the instant kiss of death for that relationship. And some writers are always going to be controversial choices. Take the American "transgressional fiction" writer, Chuck Palahniuk, famous for such explicitly gruesome fiction that audience members regularly faint at his readings. Would choosing Palahniuk as your number one suggest a thrillingly anarchic personality? Or would it just show you up as someone who likes reading about knotted intestines? Perhaps better stick with Jane Austen.
PENGUIN IS NOT ALONE in bringing potential partners together through books. For the past 38 years, American dating agency Single Book Lovers, started by a married pair of Pennsylvanian Quakers, has been matching up "lonely lovers of the written word", and many online agencies have followed suit. What's more, a recent experiment in a London bookshop, by psychologist Prof Richard Wiseman, suggests that "read-dating" could well be on its way to replacing speed-dating.
Instead of wearing a name-badge, each of the 40 people who met up wore a badge displaying the cover of their favourite book - and all but one man got a date. Most of the men chose to advertise themselves with Ian McEwan's Atonement, which went down very well indeed with the women. Wiseman conceded that Atonementwas not necessarily an obvious choice for men.
"They could have been lying," he said. "But it worked. Talking about a book is an easy way to start an intelligent conversation."
It may be a good way to start talking, but is a shared love of literature a firm basis for a long-term relationship? After all, reading is essentially a private, solitary activity. Rachel Morris, therapist and agony aunt, believes that shared experience - of whatever sort - is the key.
"Of course you need things in common, and that's fine if it happens to be books - you can both go on holiday with a suitcase-full in the summer," she says. "If you're passionate about something, you'll tend to admire that passion in other people. But you don't need a special website to do that."
One blogger bears out the view that relationships can flourish very nicely without an underpinning in deathless prose: "I've been very happily married for over 20 years. I'm an erotic romance writer. He reads thrillers. Not once have I had a literary conversation with my husband." And her advice to those seeking love? "Don't torture future dates with questions like 'Who's your favourite writer?' - and you might discover that there are far more important things to have in common than taste in books."
Rachel Morris cautions against indulging in literary snobbery. "To research internet dating, I enrolled on three different websites," she says. "I noticed that men in particular tend to show off, saying things like 'I'm more Dostoevsky than Tolstoy'. One guy sent me a pretentious list of his 10 favourite novels. He didn't realise he was writing to a psychologist. My reaction was: this doesn't tell me who you are, it just shows me that you're intellectually insecure."
As part of restoring "the importance of the written word to modern courtship", as Penguin rather sententiously puts it, the company is trying to put readers back in touch with "the age-old art of writing love letters". It's true that in these days of badly spelled and clumsily abbreviated e-mails and text messages, old-fashioned love letters do have a special cachet. The appetite is there - a fake book called Love Letters of Great Men, used as a prop in the recent Sex and the Cityfilm, was hurriedly published as a real collection of intimate billets douxafter fans demanded to read it.
Film-maker Rachel Spence says that she has never been the recipient of a tender missive - but she's not worried. "If my husband remembers to buy an anniversary card, he'll write a short limerick in it, typically something offensive. Love letters sound like a nice idea, but in reality I think I'd instantly go off any man who wrote me one. It's too soppy and slightly stalker-like for my liking. I'll stick with my rude limerick."
FOR MOST PEOPLE, their experience of giving and receiving love letters comes from their teenage years, recalled with a mixture of longing and shame.
"Ah, those were the days . . . and they always used to come with the compulsory mix-tape . Now I'm lucky if I get a Facebook poke," sighs Cathy, a 32-year-old civil servant.
"The last time I had a love correspondence was in 1987 and that was from a male friend who had moved to London," says Maureen, a librarian. "It transpired he was actually sending the same letter to many of the girls in my year at school, but just changing the 'Dear . . .' line. The wrong letter in the wrong envelope finally exposed the folly."
Martin (34) remembers an expressive love letter he received when he was 15, from a 13-year-old admirer. "It was hand-delivered by a mate of hers at school," he says. "Shamefully, I laughed out loud as I read it to my mates, not realising that the girl who sent it was within earshot. She said nothing then, but 15 years later I bumped into her and she said it was one of the most traumatising moments of her adolescence".
Ciara (35), on the other hand, was delighted to receive a heartfelt letter from her boyfriend when she was 16. "It was a wonderful poem, all knights and horsemen and declarations of eternal love," she says. "It was only later that I realised he'd just written out the first three verses of the Van Morrison song, Here Comes the Night. I did end up marrying him though."
If a handful of misappropriated song lyrics can lead to marriage, it seems that there's hope for lonely book-lovers yet. Just leave the Chuck Palahniuk on the shelf.