"Reading is everything", wrote Nora Ephron. "Reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person… Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss."
The very best books can sneak up on us from behind and wallop our minds with the sheer force of their brilliance. A good book helps us to both forget our troubles, and remember ourselves.
But have you ever been so head-over-heels in love with a story that it infected your mind to the point of obsession? Have you ever missed your train stop, forgotten to eat or ignored your friends, because of a book?
Well, in the spirit of literary infatuation, here's how to know if you're obsessed with a book.
Food stains on the pages
Who needs scintillating conversation with another person when you can have one with a book? Books don't disagree with you. They don't patronise or expect witty repartee. You don't have to share your cheesecake with a book.
Assuming you don't live alone, reading at the dinner table may not be the most sociable of activities, but when you're hook-line-and-sinkered into a storyline, the usual rules of etiquette dissolve like sugar in a hot espresso.
Yes, those cheesecake crumbs may end up down the book's spine – but this is a fact: one of the greatest compliments you can give to a writer is to blotch their work with drips of tea and blobs of jam. Food-stained pages are a badge of honour for an unputdownable book. Because, if you weren't heart-and-soul infatuated with a book, you would've been more careful.
You've started dreaming about it
That's it, you've got to sleep. Book down, lights out, the armies of sleep begin to make their advance. Must. Stop. Thinking. About. Offred's baby... Thoughts fade, the day's anxieties dissolve, darkness envelops your weary mind. Shhhh...
Suddenly you're in Gilead. Women in red cloaks and white bonnets float by. A blacked-out Land Rover screeches to a halt and men in sunglasses drag you screaming inside. Your panic rises. The doors open and quicker than you can say “blessed be the fruit”, you're facing a firing squad. Your heart slithers into your stomach, your jaw clenches in fear.
Bang: you're wide awake, back in bed and bathed in a light sweat. Your mind is consumed by a single thought: “By Ofglen's ghost, The Handmaid's Tale is a brilliant book.”
You get withdrawal symptoms
Recreational book use – done safely, of course (i.e. not on the edge of a train platform, or walking along a busy street) – can be as mind-altering as any drug. If you find the right book. There you are, having mainlined the story through your eyeballs for three straight days – a full weekend of pure, uncut wow. Late nights, little sleep, those endorphins are rushing.
But now you've reached the climax, the final high, and that familiar feeling of dread is beginning to creep into your mind: will any other book make me feel as good as this again?
So you start to read a little slower, savouring every sentence as if it were the last you'll ever read. Then, like all good things, it's over. Maybe you re-read the final page a few times in a desperate bid to recreate that first magical rush. But it's never as good, because you'll never not know how it ends again.
You can't stop talking about it – to anyone who'll listen
The greatest books don't end on the final page. And no, they don't live on in memory. Only memories do that. When you've really loved a book, conversations are the only way to keep them alive. The more of them the better, like an incantation to raise the dead.
It doesn't matter who with. It doesn't even matter if someone hasn't read it. There's a book monkey on your back and you need to shake it off. Talking about it is the only cure.
So you ask everyone you cross if they've read it. No? Oh, they really should. But as they haven't you're going to spend the next 30 minutes explaining to them what it's about and why it's important with more superlatives than a Donald Trump rally speech. You can't let a good book die.
You take it everywhere you go
So, your latest book is so brain-meltingly brilliant that it's become your New Best Friend. It speaks to you like nobody in your life speaks to you. It shares wisdom like no one you know. It offers consolation, company and humour, and it never stands you up or judges your life choices. So you do the one thing you can't do with your mates: you take it everywhere you go.
It doesn't matter that now you need a rucksack to carry all your things when once a couple of pockets would do. This book is just too important to let out of your sight for a moment. Suddenly, you've missed your Tube stop because Nora Ephron was dispensing a pebble of wisdom that's changing your worldview word by word, and now you're in Cockfosters with no idea how to get home.
You read it in the queue for the loos, or at the supermarket checkout. You take it to bed (it never steals the covers), to the pub, to the dentist. The only place you don't take it is to the bookshop... because, obviously, why would you go to a bookshop when you already own the one book on Earth that matters right now?
Trawling social media for other fans
You know that feeling when you finish a proper soul-toucher of a novel, and in that instant the entire human population divides in two: people who have read it, and can talk to you about it, and people who haven't, and can't.
You've no interest in the latter, right now. This book has changed your life. And what is a life that can't be shared? So you log on to social media, to trawl Twitter/Instagram/Reddit for someone – anyone! – who can add a new dimension to this, The Greatest Book You've Ever Read.
If you're very lucky, maybe the author him/herself has a prolific online presence, where he/she offers more insight into his/her mind. Or maybe, you just want to seek out like-minded readers who have loved this book as much as you. You're not sick; you don't need help – you just need someone to share your joy.