by Edd McCracken)
Trust me when I say it started as an act of fidelity.
I wanted to read my wife’s favourite book, The Bronze Horseman, for a while. When we started dating she told me she was so moved by this book that when she met its author, Paullina Simons, she cried.
And that is how you should be when confronted with your favourite book – you should be knocked off your axis, social norms should have no claim upon your emotional faculties. It should slay you.
When I heard about her book-inspired public blubbing, I knew she was the girl for me.
Fast forward five years. We’re happily married. Among our now combined book collection lies the copy of The Bronze Horseman, its spine and cover rippled with cracks like varicose veins from my wife’s enraptured reading sessions. It has been untouched since we met. Until now.
In my mind the mission’s premise was honourable: what better way to deepen your relationship with someone than to read their favourite book? Favourite books can be like a personal religious text; they can help you understand someone’s motivations, prejudices and worldviews.
To be fair to my wife, she was dubious about the whole enterprise. She warned me that I wouldn’t like it, that it wasn’t literary enough, that it was more of a ‘girl’s book.’ She warned me, she warned me, she warned me. Pish posh, I said, vowing to read without prejudice. And so I began, eyes wide and excited for the adventure that lay ahead.
People, The Bronze Horseman is pretty bad.
I won’t go into details because that’s not what this post is about. A cursory glance at its reviews on Goodreads will tell you that my wife is not alone in her love for it; it means a lot to an awful lot of people. I have not come to bury it.
But it highlights a more universal issue: how do you tell your loved one that this book, so charged with emotional significance, simply sucks?
Here’s some tips that I gleaned from my own experience. They have been constructed through a process that can be painfully described as trial and error, with a heavy emphasis on the error.
1 – Do not read aloud passages of the book that you find to be comically overwrought. This is neither big nor clever. It is sarcastic and cheap. You may think you are showing that you’re engaging with the book. All you are doing is showing that you are an insufferable snob.
2 – If the whole point of the book is to show how love can overcome the terror of war or some equally Big Important Lesson, do not say that you find the characters self-centred and annoying. You are missing the point. You are merely confirming your status as an insufferable snob.
3 – Question your motivation. Are you reading their favourite book to genuinely draw closer to them? Or are you reading it because you hope this offers you another chance to show your self-declared cultural superiority? If it is the latter, you don’t deserve books. Or to be in a relationship. Or oxygen.
4 – Realise that a favourite book is like an open wound. It is something to be protected. If someone, especially a loved one, comes near it, we flinch as if it is has been exposed to a chill wind. We tell them to be careful and be gentle. Any connection with the book, no matter how slight, can cause an intense reaction.
5 – Finish the book. The only thing worse than having an opinion on a favourite book is offering only pointed indifference. By abandoning the book you are effectively saying you don’t care enough about the person to find out what has made their soul leap.
6 – Don’t tell them it sucks. Because it doesn’t. If your loved one loves it, then it is special. Your highfalutin’, snobby reflexes be damned. This is not an exercise in relativism – every opinion is not equally valid – but rather its realising that everything isn’t always about you. Their favourite book might not be yours, but at least you’re with someone who has been moved by a book. Well done, that means you’re with someone rather special. If you take nothing else from this exercise, delight in that.
This is a far from exhaustive list. Feel free to offer your own. Many a relationship may depend on it.