Columns > Published on October 18th, 2012

Is Reading Sexy?

"Nothing about sex is least, none of the good parts are."--Chuck Klosterman

People have a tendency to predict the demise of art forms, in some cases not long after their inception. Reading and literature have certainly been no exception, and those who would consider themselves gatekeepers of culture have tried multiple paths towards preservation, often presented in the form of “reading awareness.” Awareness campaigns have a long and controversial track record, with many being maligned as redundant and a needless waste of money, but for better or for worse, they’ve been with us for a long time, and probably always will be.

And what better way to make someone aware of something than by tying it to sex?

What possible benefit is there to attracting people to reading and literature by dressing it up as something it is not? While both activities are immensely stimulating and enjoyable, sex is not like reading and reading is not like sex.

The above quote isn’t directly tied to reading, but we can surely all agree that reading is at least something of a cerebral exercise. I realize that I, like Klosterman, am a man, and at the risk of tarnishing my sterling reputation as a hopeless romantic, my sex drive tends to be visually focused, and when fully engaged, reduces my intellect to something usually found in lower life forms. Perhaps this entire column should be taken with a grain of salt. That said, I find this latest “reading is sexy” campaign to be silly at best, and perhaps detrimental at worst.

The first entity up for review, and one that has actually been featured on LitReactor before, is the Outdoor Co-Ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society. Let me be clear: I’m pretty on board with this group. I think their general policies of observing gender equality and crossing social (but not legal) boundaries is admirable. I also realize that the general idea is NOT to create something for men to ogle, but the unspoken (and perhaps unintentional) takeaway is: topless women are sexy. Y’know what’s even SEXIER? Topless women READING.

I can already hear the comments section burbling: what’s wrong with finding reading sexy? Well, nothing of course. But the question must be posed: if this group is at least partially about reading and literature there seems to be undue focus on bare breasts rather than pages. As mentioned, this group is also about a woman’s right to go topless in public, but the boob-to-page ratio seems quite skewed, leading me to wonder exactly how much of the traffic on this website is taken up by people looking to expand their literary horizons.

A far more silly and juvenile site is Hot Guys Reading Books, which I briefly discussed in my very first LitReactor column way back when. The title leaves little room for interpretation: this is a Tumblr almost exclusively full of photographs of attractive men reading. Even though I’m outside the target demographic, I fail to see the point. Are we to presume that these men, aside from being pleasing to the eye, are also intelligent, educated, and interesting because they’ve been photographed holding books?

Last but certainly not least there is Hysterical Literature, a project from Brooklyn-based photographer Clayton Cubitt that is interesting enough in its own right, but also guilty of the aforementioned book-fetishism. There are a few installments up on YouTube (and Cubitt's Tumblr) at the time of this writing, and each follows the same basic setup. An attractive woman sits at a table, with the camera facing her head-on. She reads out loud from a book of her choosing. As the video progresses, we begin to notice changes in her voice, and eventually she seems altogether distracted, unable to focus. Eventually, it becomes clear that somebody underneath the table is using a vibrator to bring each woman to the point of orgasm.

All these websites share more than a little with a John Waters quote that’s been going around the Internet for some time now. The text of the quote varies, but it generally follows the lines of “If you go to someone’s house and they don’t have any books, don’t fuck them.” While Waters’ intent may have been right on the money, the widespread interpretation of this quote has led many to conflate reading and book ownership with cultural currency. The publishing industry may be flagging, but these campaigns’ attempts to group reading and books into the same mental heading as sexuality seem more than a little half-baked. I want to stress again that these projects have every right to exist, but the means to which they are accomplishing some sort of end (in the case that one exists) is questionable.

What possible benefit is there to attracting people to reading and literature by dressing it up as something it is not? While both activities are immensely stimulating and enjoyable, sex is not like reading and reading is not like sex. It is of course true that intelligence can be (I would say “is”) attractive, but isn’t it time for the entire supposedly cultured world to stop pretending that being well-read is the key to sexual fulfillment, or that somebody who only reads magazines is somehow unsexable? As the old adage goes, correlation is not causation, and to quote another bespectacled fellow, Craig Finn of The Hold Steady once asserted that “big heads and soft bodies make for lousy lovers”.

I realize that this is one of the more baldly critical columns I’ve ever penned, but let me stress that I’m interested in discussion, not castigation. What do our readers think of the trend in sexin’ up reading (and where does Fifty Shades of Grey fit into all this?)? Positive? Negative? Strangely arousing? Speak up, but please folks, keep it civil.

About the author

John is a copy editor and contributing writer at LitReactor, and also does work for He holds a film degree from the University of Texas at Austin, and is currently hard at work on several as-yet unnamed projects.

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