Critical Section


Books and Wine

Wednesday,  05/07/03  08:28 PM

BooksWineTwo of my favorite things are books and wine.  They even go together; what could be finer than curling up with a great book and a nice glass of wine.

Amazingly, there are many similarities between these two apparently unrelated things.

Today I was in Barnes and Noble, searching for a new book to read, and I reflected that looking for books and wine is very similar.  In some sense they are commodities; if you know you want the latest Michael Crichton novel or Silver Oak Cabernet, you can order it online.  In other senses they aren't; each book by Michael Crichton is unique, with its own personality, as is each vintage of Silver Oak.  Until you "taste" you won't really know the book or the vintage.

Books and wines match moods; sometimes you're in the mood for something technical and detailed, other times something light and fluffy.  If you're sitting out by the pool you want a different wine and book than if you're inside on a rainy day, cuddled in front of the fire.  Some books are really complex, and have to be reread several times to catch all the nuance; others are simple entertainment which can be absorbed in one pass.  Same for wine.  Some wines are hard to like at first; they require some effort to understand, but can be incredibly rewarding.  Same for books.

Both books and wine have vast universes; it is impossible for any one person to read every book or taste every wine.  { Although both are worth trying for... }  There are styles of both; some people like horror books, some action novels, some romance, some nonfiction.  Some people like Cabernet, some Pinot Noir, some Zinfandel, some Beaujolais.  Different strokes for different folks, one man's meat is another man's poison, and all that.

Finding new books and wines is a similar process.  The best source of recommendations is your friends; they know what you like (probably like it themselves), and if they come across a great new Chardonnay or read a great new novel, they'll tell you about it.  Secondarily you have professional reviews.  I find both book and wine reviews to be highly suspect; my taste is often at odds with the reviewers, and there are highly subjective judgments involved in reviewing either...  Even so called experts like Daniel Mendolsohn or Robert Parker frequently love things I hate, or vice versa.  The very subjectivity of evaluation makes both books and wines more interesting.  Beyond others' recommendations you have yourself, and browsing.  Which is what I really wanted to write about...

You're in your local book store.  You want to buy a book.  What kind of book?  You have recent releases, old classics.  You have authors you know, authors you've heard of, and authors nobody has heard of.  Are you in the mood to experiment, or do you want something you know you'll like?

 

You're in your local wine store.  You want to buy a wine.  What kind of wine?  You have current releases, old classics.  You have wineries you know, wineries you've heard of, and wineries nobody has heard of.  Are you in the mood to experiment, or do you want something you know you'll like?

What's the purpose?  Are you looking for something light to read in bed, or something technical and meaty?

 

What's the purpose?  Are you looking for something light to drink by itself, or something big to stand up to a formal dinner?

What kind of book are you looking for?  Novel or nonfiction?  Adventure?  Mystery?  Romance?

 

What kind of wine are you looking for?  Red or white?  Chardonnay?  Cabernet?  Zinfandel?

Are you in a little book store where the staff know every book on the shelves?  Maybe they can recommend something?  Or are you in a big warehouse, where you have to rely on previous experience and ratings (NYTimes book review)?

 

Are you in a little wine store where the staff know every wine on the shelves?  Maybe they can recommend something?  Or are you in a big warehouse, where you have to rely on previous experience and ratings (Wine Spectator)?

What's your mood?  Are you ready to experiment, even if you have to bail and get another book, or do you want to go with something you know you'll like...  How about some brand new author?  Or a tried and true author you always like?

 

What's your mood?  Are you ready to experiment, even if you have to bail and get another wine, or do you want to go with something you know you'll like...  How about some brand new winery?  Or a tried and true winery you always like?

See what I mean - spooky, huh?  They're pretty much the same for being pretty much completely different.  In all of these similarities, there is one way in which they're really the same, and that's when you are in a store (like I was today) and you're trying to pick one out...

You wander the aisles.  You've decided on a category - recently released domestic novels, say - and you're trying to pick one.  You pick up a book.  Contrary to the popular idiom, you can judge a book by its cover, in fact this is pretty much all you have to go on.

 

You wander the aisles.  You've decided on a category - current release domestic merlots, say - and you're trying to pick one.  You pick up a bottle.  Contrary to the popular idiom, you can judge a wine by its label, in fact this is pretty much all you have to go on.

What is the book's title?  Have you heard of this author?  What does the jacket say?  Is it from a reputable publisher?  Perhaps the store has helpfully posted an excerpt from a review?

 

What is the wine's name?  Have you heard of this winery?  What does the label say?  Is it from a reputable appellation?  Perhaps the store has helpfully posted an excerpt from a review?

Finally you make a decision based on "feel".  The cover art, the title, the author, the shape of the book, every sense you have is employed.  So you pick.  You roll the dice, make your purchase, and head home.

 

Finally you make a decision based on "feel".  The label art, the name, the vineyard, the shape of the bottle, every sense you have is employed.  So you pick.  You roll the dice, make your purchase, and head home.

And now the fun really begins!  You have a new book!  You have a new wine!  Will this be a new all-time favorite, or a disaster to be turned into a story?  Does it start slow, or are you immediately engaged?  How is the finish?  And later - a day, or a week, or a month - what is your lasting impression?

Yep, two of my favorite things are books and wine.  In fact, now that I've gotten this thought out of my mind, I think maybe I'll pour myself a little glass of Long Chardonnay and curl up with my new Michael Crichton novel...

 

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