The Art of the Intellectual Crush
I don’t get crushes on movie stars. The only actor who I pine for is Tom Hanks, and if I ever met him, I’d probably plead with him to whisper lines from The Da Vinci Code into my ear, because I have an enormous crush on Dr. Robert Langdon, the fictional Harvard professor and bestselling author of books on feminine symbology in religious texts. He’s the protagonist of The Da Vinci Code, played by Tom Hanks.
My sophomore year of college (in 2006—which is important to very clearly clarify in this story), I would have given anything to go out on a date with Eliot Spitzer, because I was madly in love with the contents of his balding, liver-spotted head. I would have flirted with him, but what I really wanted was to listen to him talk about economics and policy and politics and to absorb his brilliant mind over a candlelit dinner of red wine and coq au vin.
Of course, today that is not the case; Eliot Spitzer is no longer on my list of “intellectual crushes.” That moves The Corrections and Freedom author Jonathan Franzen to the Number One spot on the list of brilliant men who I love, mainly because I love their work.
An “intellectual crush” is a person—usually a writer, journalist, academic, or perhaps a politician—who may or may not have the look of a sex symbol, but is extremely attractive because of his/her mind, his/her opinions, and his/her oeuvre. It’s largely a phenomenon among former English majors, nerds, and book lovers who hold their favorite authors and thinkers in much higher esteem than the beautiful, rich actors who win shiny entertainment industry awards but sound like idiots giving their acceptance speeches.
A few months ago, I went to see David Sedaris speak and waited for two and a half hours in line to meet him as though he was a rock star or a moneyed, eligible prince. I fussed with my hair and my push-up bra right up until I was next in line to meet Sedaris. As we chatted about his experience wearing tights and working as an elf in Macy’s Herald Square, my heart pounded. Conversely, last summer, when I was stopped at a red light in Los Angeles and noticed that the reigning Hollywood heartthrob Robert Pattinson was sitting in the lane next to me, I was unphased. He just looked like a dude, because he is just a dude.
If the 20-something novelist Nick McDonell (author of Twelve and The Third Brother) had made an appearance at Book Expo America, he probably could have had groupies following him around. He’s a confirmed hottie, but that doesn’t matter so much. McDonell could be totally disfigured, and it wouldn’t make a big difference to those who love him; ninety percent of his appeal comes from becoming a bestselling author at seventeen and writing a second deeply insightful novel while a Harvard undergraduate.
Not that being hot doesn’t help. Jonathan Franzen’s lean build, admirable bone structure, and dashing chiarascuro author photos make him a much more frequently-echoed intellectual crush than, say, Dan Brown…but Franzen’s extraordinary writing is what really makes him so crushable. Jacob Weisberg, editor-in-chief of the Slate Group, turned down John Kerry’s invitation to join Skull and Bones while they were undergrads at Yale, because he found the secret society’s exclusion of women students sexist. This fact, coupled with his visionary guidance of the Slate brand, means that he could look like a yeti and still be sexy. He’s actually sexy by conventional standards. (Unlike John Kerry, who is not sexy by conventional standards but definitely sexy—at least among Democrats—by intellectual crush standards.)
Thus, sex isn’t really part of the equation. An intellectual crush is not necessarily lusted after for muscles or a beautiful face with above-average symmetry; it’s the crushes’ minds that make them alluring. I may want to dig my hands in Malcolm Gladwell’s hair, but I don’t necessarily want to see him in bed; I want to see him at his writing desk. My burning crush on David Sedaris isn’t at all sexual in nature; he’s openly gay and one of his best essays talks about changing the rules of poker at a childhood sleepover so the other boys would be obligated to strip. Intellectual crushes also blur the lines of gender and sexual orientation; one can have a crush on a writer of the same gender’s “sexy mind” without it being homoerotic. I have massive crushes on scores of female authors and media types—namely J.K. Rowling, Arundhati Roy, Maureen Dowd, and Jill Abramson, the recently promoted first female executive editor of the New York Times—but I have zero interest in seeing them naked. I really just read them for their articles.
I’m not upset that Prince William is no longer single. What I’m wondering is if Barbara Ehrenreich’s 30-something novelist son is single. Ben, if you’re reading this, please call me. Our future children would be so literary, they’d probably request Hemingway as bedtime stories and teeth on quill pens. If that isn’t the picture of domestic bliss for a boy-crazy bibliophile, I don’t know what is.
Do you have an intellectual crush? This is a no-judgment zone, so spill it! The only intellectual crush to be embarrassed of is one on Snooki or The Situation (in which case, you may have missed the point).