Litmus test books: can someone’s reading tastes really make or break your relationship?

Ever lent a book to a potential friend or partner and held your breath for their reaction? You’re not the only one. But how reliable is a literary litmus test, asks Lauren Bravo.

Lauren Bravo
Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

I used to think being given a book by a new beau was the most romantic thing in the world. Then an ex-boyfriend tried to make me read Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and I was forced to reassess.

It became the second relationship in as many years to end shortly after a boyfriend lent me, with some ceremony, their favourite book (the other was a pop science tome that claimed to ‘make physics sexy again’). I’m not saying it was a key factor in the subsequent break-ups – but I’m not saying it wasn’t, either.

Still, we weren’t the only ones to use beloved literature as a form of relationship litmus test. Most book-lovers have probably been guilty of it at one time or another, whether it’s to weed out the Tinder dates most worthy of real-life contact, or, during Fresher’s Week, deciding who to swerve and who to stick with on the three-legged pub crawl. Bonding over a favourite novel can accelerate a colleague into a proper pal, secure the third drink you might otherwise have skipped, or win over a terrifying in-law. And of course, the more obscure the book, the more thrillingly serendipitous it feels to find someone who adores it too.

Actively giving them a reading assignment is a riskier move, though it can pay off. ‘When I got together with my husband, I gave him Good Behaviour by Molly Keane, which I think is kind of hard to love – but love it he did,’ says author Daisy Buchanan. As host of the You’re Booked podcast, she’s well-versed in the emotional weight carried on our bookshelves. ‘Even if a book is not presented as a deal-breaker,’ she says, ‘a bad reaction sometimes means that you feel as though you can never, ever be fully understood by that person.’  

When I float the idea among other bookworms, it seems most people have at least one deal-breaker in their collection. ‘Mine is A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara,’ says Erin, 24. ‘If you didn’t cry then I’m not sure I want to know you anymore’. Has she purposely given it to friends just to stand by and measure their tears? ‘Far too many, I’m embarrassed to say.’

'Most people have at least one deal-breaker in their collection'

Unsurprisingly, Harry Potter makes a popular benchmark for many – though not always for the better. ‘Anyone who was older than 15 when the first book was published and loved it probably won’t be someone I can spend time with,’ declares one respondent. Anonymously.

Which is not to say that highbrow tastes are necessarily any safer. There’s a certain breed of literary machismo that serves as a common red flag, however acclaimed the text might be. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is, one person tells me, ‘the ultimate litmus test’. ‘Back in the day, anyone who said they loved American Psycho was a hard no from me,’ says another. 

Of course, books aren’t the only cultural medium that works as a kind of emotional weather vane. So do films, TV shows, musicals, even a favourite Muppet (the correct answer, apparently, is Gonzo). But there’s something about those cherished reads that feels more intimate, somehow – perhaps because you don’t read a book with another person, ostentatiously laughing and sighing in all the right places; you can only send them off into that private world for however many days or weeks, and pray that they emerge at the other end feeling the same way you do.

For Becca, a science and technology writer, H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories have provided an unlikely vetting process for partners past and present. ‘Lovecraft was in so many ways a problematic fave,’ she admits, ‘but his brand of creepy cosmic horror with sci-fi, monsters and mystical cults is so extremely my thing that it’s always nice to know someone can occupy the same weird space I can.’ Her boyfriend Steve ‘went out, bought the books and devoured them.’

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