Books vs Shoes

Are Indians more interested in being well-shod or well-read?

In 1986, half in jest, Pam Woodall of The Economist created the Big Mac index, comparing the prices of hamburgers in various currencies to determine if they were over or undervalued. Now, the next big idea is almost on the tip of my typing finger. It is an index based on the constantly fluctuating relationship between the prices of shoes and books. Plot this curve for any country and you will learn several things about it, including its literacy level and perceptions about its potential as a market, maybe even its standing in the UN.

Of course, you could use any oppositional binary — guns plotted against butter or haircuts against vaccines. Any optional plotted against any essential will do, so why only shoes against books? Because 20 years ago, they set off this train of thought, which I recalled recently while paying a small fortune for a distressingly ordinary pair of shoes.

Two decades ago, I interviewed Random House publisher Sonny Mehta for a profile that refused to follow the plot. Esquire was a fine mag at the time — the fiction was interesting, lively people like Cher and Harvey Keitel were on the cover, the Sexiest Women Alive nonsense had not started — so my editor showed me their profile of Mehta. "Can you do something like Esquire?" he asked. The media constantly tries to do whatever the rest of the media is doing.

The model was classic Esquire— breathlessly dramatic hagiography, the textual equivalent of trick camera angles and always-on Photoshop. And it was loaded with human interest sidelights like Mehta's alleged habit of breakfasting on pistachios. "Is that credible? Just pistachios?" I asked. With his customary candour, he replied with a brief but penetrating analysis of US media. An unusually large number of the words he used — nouns, verbs, adjectives, gerunds — began with the letter F and were not fit to print.

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