Back Off the Shelf

As I was putting books back on my shelves, I came across my copy of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, and I remembered this story.

I had read about fifty or so pages in If on a winter’s night a traveler and was making some decent headway. I very rarely stopped reading books at that time; I think I could count the number of books I started and didn’t finish on one hand.

I was browsing one of the dating sites before apps were popular and came across a woman who had put the book in the “books I’ve read” section of her profile. I thought it would be a decent place to start a conversation, so I sent a message, mentioned I had started reading it, and whereabouts in the book I was. We made some small talk, then she said something to the effect of “Well, let’s chat again when you’re done, most people just say they’ve read books when they haven’t.”

This…really soured me on the book. I stopped reading it and didn’t come back to it. I hated the idea I was now reading the book for her sake in any way, to prove I was somehow not as deceitful as the average person she’d met so far. I shouldn’t have let her comment affect me in this way, but at the time I really felt, as many men seem to, I was coming at the process of dating from a weaker position, and in so doing was giving anyone sitting opposite a great deal of power.

It also happened that today I saw a small snippet of an interview with Javier Bardem on off Camera with Sam Jones. Bardem relates what he thinks actors are all looking for: honesty. How he describes it, however, particularly resonated with me:

“…that’s honesty, that’s why it’s so hard for us to be honest in the world, in our daily life, because we have to protect ourselves. And we have to protect others, that’s why we lie so much. We do (sic) so many lies during the day. Soft lies, tough lies, and some horrible lies as well, but… Because we need to protect who we are for others, and what are others for us.”

I think what he’s saying, in part, is that people are constantly lying to each other about who they are, and sometimes for the other person’s sake. One example might be a parent trying to appear unflappable in front of a child, in part to protect them from an adverse situation. But as we become so inured with the practice of lying to ourselves and to others, it becomes difficult to be honest, both with ourselves and with others. In fact, being honest might seem to be an aberration, i.e. - “no one is that nice.” As an actor, it seems like something he consciously has to work towards.

I see this sentiment sometimes relayed in a toxic manner. Men are desired for what they can provide, not who they are. In this model they lie about being strong, dependable, unflappable providers, both for themselves to get what they want, and for the sake of their partners/families because it’s what’s expected of them in their role. When they are honest that they, like any person, want to be desired for who they are instead of perpetuating that lie, the common story is that their partner lost respect for them (and possibly left them). Doubtless there are many situations in which one’s honesty is rewarded with trust and a deeper bond, but, like all reviews, we see many more negative than positive examples.

I think in many respects I have difficulty relating to a fair number of people because I’d prefer the honesty and good faith up-front, but I’m coming to the idea that most people are so accustomed to lying that they presume others are constantly doing it as well. I balked at her purity test because I felt I had nothing to prove, except that I did: that I wasn’t like all the other people that had lied to her so far. And let me be clear: dating, especially online, is a crap experience for everyone, and in particular ways for women that it is not for men.

I’m also done making excuses, especially making excuses for others. Screw her, screw her purity test, and screw the people that have been shitty to her. I’m reading that fucking book, and I’m doing for myself.