Lit Crit

Judging Lauren Leto’s New Book, Judging a Book By Its Lover

In which we asked Lauren Leto to "Lauren Leto" herself.
dsc 5809 Judging Lauren Letos New Book, <em>Judging a Book By Its Lover</em>

Ms. Leto

The journey from blog to book is well-trod ground for New York City’s literary aspirants. (Half of Urban Outfitters’ book selection, it seems, got its start as an acerbic single-serving Tumblr.) But, it’s not a career path you see startup founders attempt to cross. “Truthfully, I don’t think most people in tech even know I have this book coming out,” Texts from Last Night cofounder Lauren Leto confessed over the phone last week.

Surprise or not, Judging a Book By Its Lover: A Field Guide to the Hearts and Minds of Readers Everywhere, her collection of essays on the culture of fiction reading, goes on sale today from Harper Perennial, the paperback unit of HarperCollins with a reputation for publishing work by promising young authors.

The idea started with a blog post Ms. Leto published in 2010 called “Reader by Author,” which was picked up by Observer alum Foster Kamer, then Gawker’s weekend editor. In it, Ms. Leto offered funny snap judgements about personality quirks based on reader’s favored author (for example, “Maureen Dowd: Women who remember fondly the first time they got their period.”)

“This one post just struck a chord with so many people,” said Ms. Leto, so she continued to build out the list over the next three months. When another blog post in a similar vein–about how to fake like you’ve read a famous author–also elicited positive feedback, “I started pitching it as a book,” so she could have time to delve deeper into the peculiarities of book culture, she said. The day after she got the book deal, Ms. Leto closed funding on the angel round for Bnters, the startup she left behind this May for a general manager role at Findings, a Betaworks company serves readers who want to discuss book quotes and web clippings.

The 269-page volume is part suburban memoir, part humble-bragging nerd confessional, and part etiquette manual. (We may be wrong about the braggadocio! But give the ascendance of the nerd, it’s hard not to detect a swell of pride in the story about how teachers conspired to stop her from reading.) The book also features plenty of the flippant rubrics that first won Ms. Leto fans from masochistic literati eager to see their reading habits skewered by an outsider.

Take the chapter called “What Your Child Will Grow Up to Be . . .” which predicts personality based on youthful bookshelves. Where the Wild Things Are? “Navel-gazing Tumblr addict.” Eloise? “Those nosy gossips with a taste for high-class clubbing and the ability to seek out the best sample sales will be moving straight to the big city after college graduation.”

Ms. Leto described the book as “a little bit of everything.” An acquaintance who hadn’t yet read her book, she said, called the concept as “astrology for book lovers–‘what is up with your life that you love Dostoevsky so much,’ which might be diluting it a little too much.”

Some of the critiques stop just short of stinging. We maintain a “Quirky Hipster” bookshelf, for instance, would feature Sheila Heti and Richard Yates by Tao Lin, not a Che Guevra bio and The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. But the self-contained chapters make it easy enough to pick up and put down. And Ms. Leto’s book site has done a wonderful job illustrating the best essay in the collection, “Literati: (Or Why Ernest Hemingway Once Told John Updike New York Is a Bottle Full of Tapeworms Trying to Feed on Each Other),” which can be read as a response to any freudenschade directed towards the 20-something Gross Pointe native.

We also found the chapter about pretending to have read Infinite Jest almost painfully relatable. She went back to the David Foster Wallace well when the online dating startup How About We asked her to contribute something to its upcoming book. “I was like, ‘If they are reading Infinite Jest on the subway, they’re probably a psychopath.’ Maybe I just have so much rage or guilt about not finishing Infinite Jest that I’m just judging everyone who’s actually getting through it,” she wondered with a laugh. “I’m such an asshole.”

So how would the author fare if subjected to her own snap-judgment rubrics? “Oh, oh, oh god. Oh, I don’t know. That’s terrifying!” Ms. Leto demurred. “Because the thing is that it’s such a small statement. I don’t know. I’d hope that the word hipster wouldn’t be in there. Or the word quirky. That would be my goal.”

As for faking as though one has read Judging a Book, “There’s so much stuff that people can probably pick out,” Ms. Leto said. “She probably says really pithy stuff about Jonathan Franzen. She probably loves Dostoevsky. She probably thinks she’s really cool. She probably knows a lot about Ayn Rand because she secretly really likes him. Her! Oh my god,” she added, laughing off her split-second slip up.

Despite numerous attempts to get Ms. Leto to break down startup reading habits the same way she did old-money prepsters and frat guys, she politely declined. “The stereotype is that developers read a lot of science fiction and they read a lot of Games of Thrones. But I feel like I find a lot of fiction readers in the field, and not just science fiction–just a lot of people who think very seriously about the world.” After our phone interview, Ms. Leto elaborated by email, “I guess I’m too close to the source, it’s easier to judge from afar. I see all the nuances and know that not everyone in tech has the personality of a brogrammer or a CEO.”

“By the way,” she added, “I figured out my ‘Readers by Author’ I think. Lauren Leto: The girl who takes pictures of almost all her meals but would die of embarrassment if anyone caught her doing so.”

Follow Nitasha Tiku on Twitter or via RSS. ntiku@observer.com