Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Perils of Literary Profiling

How much can we know of someone by the books on their shelves?

From a piece in the New York Times...

Reading habits would seem to be relevant enough to someone’s biography, especially if that person is a writer. In his study “Built of Books,” Thomas Wright attempts to reconstruct the contents of Oscar Wilde’s library, which was dispersed and auctioned off between his imprisonment and trial. It’s worth knowing (though hardly surprising) that Wilde read the Greek and Roman classics, Shakespeare, Hegel and some French pornography, but difficulties arise when Wright tries, in a self-described moment of “quixotic madness,” to make the book a partial autobiography, in the belief that if he read everything Wilde had read, Wilde would become a “Socratic mentor, who would help me give birth to a new self.”

Forging a deep link between criminals and their books can be even more quixotic. Ed Sanders, in “The Family,” tells us that one of Charles Manson’s favorite books was Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land,” but we’re also told that Manson was barely literate. Both John Hinckley Jr. (Reagan’s would-be assassin) and Mark David Chapman (the murderer of John Lennon) have been connected to “The Catcher in the Rye,” Hinckley by having a copy in his hotel room, Chapman by calmly reading the book outside the Dakota apartment building while waiting for the police to arrive after he shot Lennon. But it’s hardly surprising that a book that has sold well over 35 million copies has occasionally fallen into the hands of criminals.

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