Yes, it may make us look douchey to you if we read it, but that’s the point: he’s a male writer, inserting his male gaze, blah blah blah. To see a smart, strong woman enjoying Roth, well, there’s a reversal. Bonus points for something not as obvious, like: Letting Go , The Great American Novel (baseball); Indignation (college and blowjobs); or The Plot Against America (alternate history). And for Roth’s Kafkaesque attempt at a female perspective, try The Breast . We’d be impressed with The Breast. Warning: these guidelines don’t apply to Updike. Not as cool.
Look, we’re guys, we like sports. Yes, everyone agrees that a person reading the Robert Caro LBJ volumes is attractive to all sexes, all races, all beings, and all forms of life on any planet anywhere. But what really makes you look like a catch is to see you’re enjoying, say, Open by Andre Agassi. Or go old school: Bad As I Wanna Be by Dennis Rodman. (Yes, almost all of these kinds of books have ghostwriters who deserve the real credit.) Maybe you like basketball? Try West by West , from Lakers legend Jerry West. Rooting for hapless baseball teams your thing? Mets ace R.A. Dickey’s new book Wherever I Wind Up is great. And, no, this isn’t just about men liking women who read about athletic men. There are great sports bios on women, too. Swinging From My Heels , by female golfer Christina Kim with SI golf scribe Alan Shipnuck, is hilarious. Or read Wonder Girl , Don Van Natta Jr.’s awesome new book about Babe Didrikson, who played basketball, track, and golf, and excelled at all of them. You’ll excel in our hearts if you’re reading a cool sports bio.
Anything by James Salter
Well, apart from A Sport and a Pastime . Even though that book is oh so sexy, so restrained and beautifully written, it’s the one everyone reads. Capture our eye and fancy by toting a short story collection like Last Night or Dusk , or better yet, his marriage novel Light Years . Although, after reading some of Salter’s succinct, heartbreaking relationship stories, you may not be so eager to jump into one of your own.
Books in the 33 1/3 series
Because that shit is just cool. Anyone can put on headphones and listen to something secretively (and, hello, we know it’s “Call Me Maybe”) but to be interested enough in the story behind an album to read a whole book about it, that’s a sign — maybe not foolproof, but a green light, at least — that you’re interesting. Favorites: the one on Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (he of that “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” cover), the one on Paul’s Boutique, the one on Elliott Smith’s XO. Plus, they fit right in the pocket of your jeans, for added sexy nonchalance when you step off the train and walk away.
Anything by Kenzaburo Oe
Everyone reads Haruki Murakami, and lugging around 1Q84 isn’t as cute as you think. (Here’s a hint: nothing happens.) You can always tell, too, that some of these Murakami lovers think they impressing people by being hip to a Japanese author. Instead, discover a more adult, more critically acclaimed but less mainstream-popular Japanese author, Kenzaburo Oe. If you’re reading A Quiet Life , a genre-blending novel narrated by a woman, or A Personal Matter , about a man aware that his child will be born retarded (it’s one of Jonathan Franzen’s favorite books, if that counts for anything), we’ll know you’re a true original.
Melville House novellas
Any New York idiot can find out about Tao Lin, but if we spot something on your shelves from Melville House’s Art of the Novella series — beautiful, slim editions of classic short stories or novellas — it means you had to know about them, seek them out, and spend a few dollars on something slim. Tolstoy, Chekhov, those are fine, but how about Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather. Or The Horla by Guy de Maupassant. Or The Lemoine Affair by Proust. Very, very cool. But, a heads up: Benito Cereno, not cool. The Dead, not cool. A Simple Heart, not cool. We’ve all read those in lit classes already. You can do better.
Short story collections (not anthologies)
This is a tricky one: reading a book of short stories is sexy; reading “the collected stories” of an author is less so. It’s just like with music — what’s more uncool than owning a band’s greatest hits album and none of its others? Not much. Story collections are the same way. Just like in an album, the stories in an author’s collection are arranged in a certain way. In the best collections, they flow perfectly into one another. A “highlights” collection that comes later on loses that. So, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? Cool. Cathedral ? Cool. Short Cuts , the film-initiated collection of nine Carver hits? Not as cool. (Though it’s only fair to note that the Library of America’s collected Carver is lovely.) Those surveyed are split on whether anthologies of stories that won awards (i.e. the O. Henry Prize stories, the Best American Short Stories) are an exception to this rule, but why find out? Instead, pick up some fabulous single-author short-story books of the past decade, whether “linked,” as is the current vogue, or unlinked. Men we polled loved: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (seriously!); Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser; In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Muenuddin; Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (yes, she’s still cool); and, obviously, Drown by Junot Diaz.
A Scanner Darkly , by Philip K. Dick
Or, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? , which became Blade Runner. Or, The Minority Report , which became Minority Report. Philip K. Dick is a treasure too often overlooked today. Hey, everyone knows Ender’s Game is cool, and you can’t look bad enjoying a little Orson on the subway. But PKD is somehow cooler, more wacked out, more intriguing. If you’re reading some Dick on a park bench, maybe that handsome guy glancing over will start dreaming of electric you.
Anything by Nicholson Baker
Doesn’t matter which sex you are or which you’re trying to attract: Nicholson Baker is a sexy writer. Monica Lewinsky gave a copy of phone-sex novella Vox to Bill Clinton, but the consensus among surveyed men was that Baker’s brainier fare is even sexier — The Mezzanine takes place during one escalator ride, while Room Temperature happens as a man feeds his baby. Then again, The Fermata is a pretty good bet to turn us on — it’s sort of striking to see a woman who enjoys reading a book like that. “Like that,” meaning, you know, a book about a guy who stops time to undress women. Baker’s newest, House of Holes , is also about sex, but goes heavier on the slapstick, lighter on the steam. No matter which one you’re reading, you can’t go wrong showing that you read high-minded erotic musings, and read them in public, no less.
McSweeney’s titles (the less obvious ones)
The books McSweeney’s chooses to publish are always physically beautiful and, if not always perfect, guaranteed to be creative and quirky. Reading Eggers is too boringly mainstream (ever see how many airport bookstands still have What is the What featured?), but add to your shelves some of the less known, charming McSweeney’s Rectangulars like Arkansas or Citrus County by John Brandon (whose new book A Million Heavens is another great as well as great-looking novel), Here They Come by Yannick Murphy, Vacation by Deb Olin Unferth, or The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian, to name just a few. Or you can’t go wrong with a fresh copy of Miranda July’s beautiful new book, It Chooses You . Bonus cute points for McSweeney’s merch, like the classic .
Alison Bechdel and/or Chris Ware
And other great graphic novels and novelists. What is it about a hot girl reading Maus ? Oh, maybe that she’s obviously educated, able to read about difficult topics, appreciates art, and we could go on. If Speigelman’s not your thing, books by Daniel Clowes ( Ghost World ), Ware ( Jimmy Corrigan ) or Alison Bechdel ( Fun Home , and now out with her second graphic memoir, Are You My Mother? ) are hilarious, magical, exciting. Just remember there’s a fine line between comic books and graphic novels. Reading the new Wolverine issue probably won’t have the same effect, though it’s cool in a different way.
Lit or The Liar’s Club , by Mary Karr
Mary Karr is cool as hell. A guy reading Karr looks, to women — we’re guessing here — like he appreciates the pained, brutally honest recollections of a strong, smart woman. And, let us tell you, a gal reading Mary Karr looks like she may be a strong, sexy, smart thinker herself. That, or she just wanted to flip to the swath of pages about Karr’s volatile relationship with David Foster Wallace. Either way, reading the ruthlessly sharp insights of beautiful Mary Karr might make you a friend or two, and send you home with a phone number or two.
It’s cool to read cool authors, but it’s also cool to be so literary that you read the biographies of great authors. The more complex the author, the more engaging the bio, usually. The World Is What It Is , Patrick French’s book on V.S. Naipaul, is a doozy. (Raging asshole = perfect biography subject.) Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch is also fabulous and will catch our eyes. The Autobiography of Mark Twain , which came out in 2012, is something of an enigma and another very cool option. FYI: That Steve Jobs biography being read by everyone everywhere does not count here. No date for you, Apple zombies!