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Dear Daniel M. Lavery: Advice for a betrayed bookworm

For five years, American writer Daniel M. Lavery provided guidance as the famed agony aunt of Slate’s popular advice column ‘Dear Prudence’. Now, ahead of his Melbourne appearance at the Wheeler Centre’s World of Words, Lavery helps a betrayed bookworm with some romantic and reading advice.

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Dear Daniel,

I have been dating someone for a few months, and it’s been going fairly well. Thinking it was getting more serious, I shared a copy of my favourite book with them and when they said they’d read it straight away I became eager to know what they thought. A couple of weeks passed and I decided to ask if they’d read it. They said they had nearly finished it and I told them I looked forward to discussing it.

A week later, I asked what they thought and they told me they absolutely loved it. My heart sang, so I pressed for further information, wanting to understand their views on the finer details. As we discussed the book in more depth, it became clear they probably hadn’t read it all, or if they had, had barely skimmed it.

I let it slide in the moment, but it’s plaguing me now. On the one hand, I’m disappointed they didn’t take the time to read the book, and especially upset that it seems they have lied to me. On the other hand, I don’t want to make a big deal out of it and risk causing a rift in our relationship. I understand they may have been trying to make me feel better by skimming the book knowing I was so keen to chat about it.

What should I do? Should I confront them about not reading the book? Should I let it go and move on? I really value their opinion, but I also don’t want to feel like my interests are being ignored or that I’m being lied to. Please help!

– Bookworm Betrayed



Dear Bookworm Betrayed,

It’s entirely possible that someone, somewhere, has said they were ‘nearly finished’ with something and it was the God’s honest truth. But I think ‘I’m nearly finished with it’ ranks with ‘On my way!’ and ‘Be there in five!’ and ‘I think we’ll be able to make it Thursday, just let me check my schedule!’ for statements that have more to do with optimism than reality.

Someone who texts ‘On my way!’ when they are stepping out of the shower or looking for their shoes is broadly gesturing at their direction, rather than their location. They are, in a manner of speaking, ‘on their way’ inasmuch as they are taking active steps toward leaving the house. But they are not ’on their way‘ in the sense of being in active transit.

Perhaps your new partner wanted to be nearly done with the book you’d lent them; perhaps they thought to themselves, ‘I have every intention of finishing this book, and this question is an excellent reminder of how much this week has unexpectedly run away with me, and I’ll dedicate the rest of the afternoon to curling up with the book and a nice cup of tea, so by this evening my statement will be entirely true. I like to think of myself as a devoted reader, possessed of a curious and open mind, and saying I’m “nearly finished” feels true, somehow, even though I’ve been so busy with work/my new relationship/that weird drip in the kitchen the last few days that I haven’t had the time. And perhaps I’ve felt a trifle piqued at having assigned reading for my new relationship, but that’s a churlish response to a loving gesture to my wonderful new partner, so let’s not think about that just now. I suppose I haven’t spent as much time devotedly reading with a curious mind for the last five or six years as I might have expected. But I’ve been very busy – surely change is just around the corner. Yes, I’m nearly finished, all right.’

I could be wrong, of course! But as much as I can sympathise with your position – I always want to shove recommendations at new partners and friends, and always think of my favorites as universally appealing – I do think it’s difficult to share a highly-beloved book with a new partner without constraint. When someone you’ve been dating for a few blissful months reverently hands you a well-worn copy of their absolute favorite, eyes brimming with hope and expectation, there’s not really much room to say ‘Thanks, but that doesn’t really interest me,’ is there? Even if there’s some lip service towards ‘Of course you don’t have to read it if you don’t want to,’ the pressure is simmeringly on.

At that point, your partner’s only two reasonably polite options were to 1. Read the book cover to cover and share your exact opinion of it, or 2. Read just enough to plausibly survive a discussion of its contents, finding one or two elements you can warmly and sincerely praise, and hope you won’t be pressed for further details (‘But what did you think of page 87? Page 87 is where it all really comes together,’ ‘I know people say you can’t really understand La Vie mode d’emploi without at least some familiarity with the layout of the Paris XVII arrondissement, but I think that’s a red herring, and Perec’s claim about real-life analogues of 11 rue Simon-Crubellier was offered whimsically,’ etc).

None of that’s to say you were wrong to share your favorite book with your new partner, nor that it’s impossible to lend a book to a lover under mutually agreeable, mutually honest terms, and I completely understand why you’re feeling a bit crestfallen now. It’s the first off-key note in what has otherwise been a beautiful symphony of concord and unanimity.

I don’t think you should confront them, but it might do you both good to say something like, ‘I realise I was awfully keen about getting you to you read ____, and I didn’t actually ask whether you were interested (or had the time) to pick up a new novel. It can be difficult to decline an offer like that in the face of such enthusiasm! If you are ever looking for recommendations, just say the word and I’ll be happy to offer a few suggestions, but I won’t offer any more unprompted.’

You might consider inquiring a bit more into your beloved’s own favorites, too. Perhaps their tastes in books are quite different to yours, and you might even hear about a new title that interests you – perhaps you’ll learn they aren’t much of a reader at all, and you might decide to save the majority of your literary discussions for other friends whose tastes do align with yours.

This doesn’t mean you should never discuss books with your partner again, or that you somehow violated important relationship etiquette by hoping they’d like something that meant a great deal to you. But I think your partner’s lie (if it was a lie, of course, and not simply a sign that they misunderstood the book) was a socially polite one told during the early days of a new relationship where both parties are still employing their company manners, rather than a troubling indicator of a bad character or a bigger rift to come.

Daniel M. Lavery



Daniel M. Lavery appears in conversation with Jess McGuire at the Wheeler Centre on Tuesday 23 May and as part of Take It From Me: World of Worries, a night of hilarious romance advice, on Monday 22 May.

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