You can keep your celluloid heartthrobs and TV hotties—give us book nerds a crush object written in black-and-white. Because all the great one-sided romances come with paper cuts, and some of the best dates happen at the bookstore, here are the characters we’ve most wanted on our arms, in our books, and downloaded to our ereaders:
Alexandra Silverman: Odysseus
It’s a weird crush, not least because Odysseus is way too short for me—he’s an ancient Greek, and I’m 5’10” in Chuck Taylors—but I don’t know how anyone could read The Odyssey and not fall a little in love with Homer’s hero. Odysseus outsmarts gods, charms witches, wins the Trojan War, and only loses his level head when he’s tied to the mast of a boat while sirens try to sing him to his death. He also has the alluring distinction of ending up in Dante’s 8th circle of hell (for fraud), less debased than only a few men, including Cain, Judas, and Satan himself. I think of Odysseus as the original international man of mystery: an adventurer of wits who lives by a code and gets the girl (Penelope, Circe, Calypso, me…).
Josh Sorokach: Jordan Baker
I completely understand how absurd a crush on The Great Gatsby’s Jordan Baker sounds, but crushes are rarely synonymous with rational thought. I’m certain JB, as I would lovingly refer to her until tersely reprimanded, is the type of person you’d initially find intriguing, then eventually grow to despise. Logically, I understand that we’d never succeed as a couple. One, she’s fictional. People with fictional girlfriends are doomed to spend their lives attending weddings alone. Two, she’s kind of awful. Awful in a charming, slightly enigmatic way, but awful nonetheless. I’m reminded of Nick Carraway’s words on ending it with Jordan Baker: “Angry, and half in love with her, and tremendously sorry, I turned away.” A relationship that can evoke that type of passion, even of the fleeting variety, is worth experiencing. Every well-lived life contains a few necessary sojourns of the Jordan Baker variety.
Melissa Albert: Peter Pan
So this is a weird one, right? Not only is Peter not legal, but he never will be—even if fictional characters could grow up, he’s the one who wouldn’t. But speaking for pre-teen Me, there was nobody like J.M. Barrie’s Peter. He was wild, untamable, and brave, longing for female companionship even as he rebelled against it. For a bookish little girl, Peter Pan was a gateway bad boy, giving Wendy just enough attention to keep her wanting more. And despite his moodiness and distractible nature, he kept on coming back for her…until she finally committed the ultimate crime of growing up. Though I’m old enough now that I’d be forced to hang not with the Lost Boys but the pirates, I still have a soft spot for Peter. Now I just see things from a Mrs. Darling point of view.
Janet Manley: Robert Kincaid
I am a lover of great books. Books that are the focus of “conversations” in the Paris Review and the New Yorker and the London Review of Books. Sadly, Robert Kincaid, the road nomad whose “small rear in tight jeans” walked into The Bridges of Madison County to sweep the heroine off her feet, remains unexamined by these institutions. What about Kincaid seduced me? The smell of quiet, perhaps, or his fondness for words, or maybe the manly way he wielded his National Geographic camera (a metaphor…for cameras). Perhaps it was his casual self-image: “I am the highway and a peregrine and all the sails that ever went to sea.” Perhaps it was the way he saw right into the soul of the lost woman at the center of the story (“clearly outlined nipples”). If I’m honest, perhaps he lit a fire because I believed that, one day, I might have sex with “a leopard-like creature who rode on the tail of a comet.” Robert James Waller Kincaid, you have my heart. Sorry I’m not sorry.
Joel Cunningham: Michelle Wasserstrom
If you’ll forgive the creepiness of choosing a gal in high school (she’s very mature for her age!), then let me tell you about Michelle Wasserstrom, one of the primary characters in Adam Langer’s criminally under-read 2004 novel Crossing California, a bildungsroman about two sisters living in a Jewish neighborhood on Chicago’s north side in the early 1980s. Michelle is the older, jaded one, and easily one of the most hilarious, authentic rebellious teens in recent literature. Like a version of Rory Gilmore I would actually want to hang around with in real life, Michelle is brilliant, ambitious, and an outsider by choice, mocking nearly everything around her (from the lameness of her fellow classmates to her dad’s dippy new girlfriend) with equal ferocity. She knows she’s the biggest deal at her school and can’t wait to get out of there—but that doesn’t mean she won’t be a badass while it lasts, fighting tooth-and-nail to be the head of the drama club. Her story continues in sequel The Washington Story. I won’t spoil it, but she becomes a blacksploitation film star. Since she’s white, you can imagine what an accomplishment this is.
Jennifer Grudziecki: Draco Malfoy
Why Malfoy? Because I am walking, talking YA cliché and I can’t help it. I have a thing for loving characters I know I’m not supposed to. But Draco is so redeemable! He’s the essence of a brilliant guy who could be perfect, if only he weren’t a victim of his terrible upbringing. His horrendous personality is endearing in an odd sort of way. Plus, he’s British.
Emily Winter: Mike Schwartz
I have a HUGE literary crush on Mike Schwartz from The Art of Fielding. Big burly chest, mature beyond his years, plus Midwestern nice?! PERFECT COMBO, LADIES. And he has bad knees! That’s SO HOT and vulnerable. I’d change my name to Pella for him any day. <3
Lauren Passell: Gogol Ganguli
It would be impossible to prove whether my crush on Gogol Ganguli, from Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, is on the character or on Kal Penn, who plays him in the movie adaptation, which I (unfortunately) saw before reading the book. I also had a crush on Kal Penn in Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, and I’m sure if that was a book, I would have a crush on the literary-version of Kumar, too. Wait—can someone please write that book? Look at me, now I’m just babbling. Can we talk about Kal Penn some more? His lips are delicious. I mean, the lesson is, boys and girls: never see the movie first.
Who’s your biggest fictional crush?