test

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.’

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.’

For couples with differing ideas about reading altogether, the gulf can feel more significant. ‘I was immensely relieved when he read the His Dark Materials trilogy, about 18 months into our relationship,’ my friend Amy tells me. ‘I read loads of fiction, he reads none, and I thought I was facing a possible future with no imagination, no suspension of disbelief, no joy.’

(‘I do have an imagination,’ her boyfriend retorts in the same WhatsApp window. ‘I imagine I have a girlfriend who loves me.’)

Sometimes the litmus test is less about their emotional response, and more about somebody being willing to put in the hours. ‘I refused to marry my husband until he’d read Lord of the Flies again, without the pressure of writing a GCSE paper,’ says Dani. ‘He didn’t enjoy it any more the second time round – but that effort alone was enough to make me change my mind.’

Interestingly more than a few people mention books they ‘used to’ use as a test in younger years, but wouldn’t choose as a hill to die on now. Maybe we simply become less idealistic over time – or maybe we define ourselves less rigidly by our tastes and passions, shedding the youthful narcissism that says people are only worthy if they think the same things we do. I used to believe I could never date someone who didn’t love the same music I did. Now I’ve lived for a decade with a man who once looked at a photo of the Beatles and asked which one was Mick.

But he has, I should say, passed a book test: The Diary of a Nobody, George and Weedon Grossmith’s brilliant late-Victorian comic novel. Several years into our relationship, I didn’t think of it as a watershed moment at the time – but hearing him laugh himself hoarse over Pooter, the fussy, social-climbing middle manager from once-suburban Holloway, I was flooded with surprise relief. I don’t care if he’s never read Fitzgerald or Steinbeck, but I’m not sure I could go out with anyone who didn’t find The Diary of a Nobody funny. Much more than grandiose ideas of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, a shared sense of humour is something it really does help to agree on.

While literature will always be a useful route into intimacy, perhaps making peace with a little divergence of taste is no bad thing. After all, as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – a book he still hasn’t read – reminds us: ‘I'd far rather be happy than right any day’.  

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