I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
A year or so ago, while researching a piece about bad celebrity poetry, I acquired a lot of useless knowledge about famous people’s favorite books. More often than not, they are what we might call “classic novels” — meaning the celebrity in question probably read them while in high school, or while being homeschooled, or while otherwise engaged in the kind of educational arrangement typically reserved for preternaturally attractive famous teens. Stars, being just like us, are also overworked and left with little time to read.
In the case of Britney Spears — a true romantic and a modern heroine — the favorite book is a bonkbuster romance novel. “Anything Danielle Steel,” she once told a fan who asked for a recommendation, then “anything Jackie Collins” when she was asked for a second time. Like most girls who were not yet women in the ’90s, I have a near-irrational fondness for the Louisiana dream girl, even or especially when she’s been in nightmare mode: infinitely easy to root for, moreso if you yourself are a formerly troubled millennial. Britney Jean is now also a self-proclaimed book lover: She shares reading memes on social media. She’s the owner of a teaspoon that’s emblazoned with the words, “DRINK TEA. READ BOOKS. BE HAPPY.” She is not particularly bothered as to whether you consider what she’s reading to be highbrow, Instagrammable, or hip — it’s 2017, she’s a single mom, she is seemingly now very chill instead of desperate, and it’s not our pleasure that she’s most concerned with.
One thing I think about a lot, discovered while deep in this rabbit hole of dumb research about famous reading habits, is a paparazzi photograph from 2012 of Spears returning from a vacation in Maui. In the picture, she is holding several books, the uppermost of which is a copy of Voltaire’s Candide; she is clad in a fedora, hot pants, and a pair of glasses dark enough that we can’t tell if she’s wearing an expression that says, “Huh! I’m reading Candide!” or “Huh? I’m reading Candide?” It is inscrutable. Did Britney pick up a copy of Candide while in Maui? Did she bring it with her for the trip? (Stars, again being just like us, presumably take Serious Books on holiday with good intentions, even if they end up reading pulpy garbage by the pool.) Did she finish it? Did she enjoy it? Would she recommend it to a friend?
The mystery, I ought to clarify, is not the singer’s intellect or lack thereof, but her intention. I’ve no doubt that Spears could happily dive into Voltaire; but the book is so at odds with everything she typically admits to reading that its face-out presence in a paparazzi shot seems pointed. Someone fond of cooking up conspiracy theories might suggest that Britney had been offering us a signal, and that her appearance with the novel was a prankish visual joke. Unlike — I’m assuming— Britney Spears, I’ve never read Candide. I know enough about the plot to know the story is a satire: that it follows a young man, the titular Candide, who is cast out from a charmed life in “the greatest of all possible worlds” because of a youthful sexual transgression. Though the tale is a little different from the one laid out in, for example, Spears’s single “Lucky” (“And the world keeps spinnin’/And she keeps on winnin’/But tell me/What happens when it stops?”), or played out on TMZ when Britney morphed from a much-loved pop star into a mental patient with a shaved head, it’s not totally divergent.
In the summer of 2012, when said photo was taken, she was still six months away from starting up the Vegas residency that her fans so often credit with her transformation into her new, better, and less harried self. This meant the kind of self who bought a teaspoon advocating reading, and it meant the kind of self who shouted “men can suck my toe!” onstage with gusto. It meant no longer having the nickname “The Animal,” or behaving like a Tasmanian Devil. At the end of Candide, he apparently learns to derive joy from tending a garden, which sounds very Britney circa-now.
Britney’s Southern-fried accent and her evident dependence on the kindness of strangers both have long suggested that she might be a character out of a play by Tennessee Williams. In a hot-pink T-shirt reading I AM THE AMERICAN DREAM, she’s a blonde in the mode of Sylvia Plath as seen by Ted Hughes: her “American royalty,” her “exaggerated American Grin for the cameras,” her “perfect American legs,” her madness, her mistreatment, her decline. She is not exactly an un-literary figure — and her own trajectory, so choppy that we might now call a certain kind of rise-and-fall-and-then-rise-again “Spearsian,” is her greatest narrative work. This paparazzi photograph might be her second greatest. And like some great novels, this symbolic snapshot is just as fascinating as it is hard to read.