The Best Books to Read With Someone You Love
These five titles are made even better by exploring them alongside another person.
Until I’m actually doing it, I frequently forget how pleasurable it is to stop in the middle of a book and text a friend, aghast at what just happened. Because I no longer read with classmates and I’m not in any book clubs, this delight has become a rare one for me—most of the time, reading is a solitary pursuit. But lately, I’ve tried to make more room for wandering through a plot alongside someone I love.
When my fiancée and I adore, or despise, an author’s work for the same reasons, it’s a rush—like the feeling of finishing each other’s sentences. Making my way through a book at the same time as friends who are more attentive readers helps me notice details I may have missed entirely. And with any companion—especially on a road trip—listening to an audiobook together can be spellbinding, or at least give you something to laugh about.
Below are five books made even better by experiencing them with somebody else—a significant other, a friend, or a family member. They offer riddles to crack, and polarizing characters and conclusions to argue about. And whether you agree with them or not, your reading partner’s impressions might entirely change how you think about the story.
We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, by Samantha Irby
Irby is the author of multiple self-deprecating, affecting, painfully funny essay collections—We Are Never Meeting in Real Life is her second; her newest, Quietly Hostile, will be out in May. (She also writes for TV and has an irreverent Substack newsletter dedicated to breaking down reruns of the courtroom reality show Judge Mathis.) Here, she circles many of the same subjects she’s known for: her body, her experience with Crohn’s disease, aging, her childhood, her parents, and the exuberant gratifications of television and staying indoors. She also tells the genuinely romantic tale of falling in love with her now-wife. But Irby is at her best when writing about sex; in a previous book, she offered tips on “how to get your disgusting meat carcass ready,” a phrase I will never forget. Here, thankfully, she remains unafraid to describe exactly how humiliating and hysterical “thirty-seven minutes of really taxing physical labor” can be. You won’t be able to get through this without sharing some of its choice passages with anyone who’s within earshot. Save some time by buying two copies, or better yet, try the audio version.
His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman
One of the great joys of reading is encountering worlds you don’t want to leave; reading with another person means exploring those worlds together. Pullman’s beloved fantasy trilogy offers an entire universe to venture into, one that orbits around an irresistible protagonist, Lyra: a brave scoundrel who very quickly becomes responsible for the fate of free will in all sentient beings. The author alludes to John Milton and William Blake in this abstract retelling of Genesis, which takes place in a fantasy realm populated by witches, specters, and souls embodied as talking animals. Lyra stands in for Eve in the Garden of Eden, on the verge of acquiring forbidden knowledge. But the trilogy fiercely argues that this transition is no sin—that it’s essential and even beautiful. While many fantasy stories might build to a bloody, dramatic war, Pullman instead focuses on the swell and heartbreak of first love, and the indelible moment when a child, without quite knowing it, becomes a young adult. His Dark Materials is long but never drags, and its hundreds of pages construct a deep and wondrous cosmos to discover together. When readers reach the last page, they can pick up Pullman’s sequel trilogy, The Book of Dust, about Lyra’s life as an adult. It’s a relief—you won’t want to say goodbye to her.
The Portrait of a Mirror, by A. Natasha Joukovsky
Joukovsky’s novel follows two high-status young couples whose paths cross in the hallowed professional worlds of museums and consulting during the summer of 2015. The satirical comedy of manners skewers wealth and self-obsession, reinterpreting beats from Ovid’s myth of Narcissus, the young man who wasted away while staring at his own reflection. Wes and Diana, born into privilege and living in New York, and Vivien and Dale, upwardly mobile in Philadelphia, are forced into a kind of unacknowledged love quadrangle, but their adulterous sexual tension is overshadowed by the fact that these people love themselves far more than they love one another. Their relationships rely on carefully balanced rounds of passive-aggressive sniping and layer after layer of perfectly understood, but uncommunicated, displeasure. Sharing Portrait with a friend will only heighten the delicious friction. The book will have you and a companion constantly switching allegiances among the four unlikable characters, debating which of them is the worst. After all, Joukovsky reminds us, mocking someone behind closed doors is no fun unless you have a partner to do it with.
Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban
Some vague stretch of time after a nuclear disaster destroyed civilization, a 12-year-old boy named Riddley Walker goes on a pilgrimage around southeast England to Canterbury. The plot of Hoban’s delightful, perplexing novel doesn’t immediately make sense, though, because it’s narrated entirely in a corrupted, phonetic dialect. It begins, “On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar.” Fragmented pieces of our culture have been preserved, and warped, by storytelling: The society’s foundational myth is about how “clevver” people hunted down a shining little “man,” the “Addom,” then tore him in two to release great power. Riddley discovers, alongside the reader, that some wish to resuscitate the knowledge that existed before the disaster wiped it out; they go around collecting materials like “Saul & Peter” and “chard coal” and “salt 4” to create a weapon they know is potent and explosive. Reading the book with someone else—or, even better, reading it aloud with them—gives you the chance to discuss theories as you try to solve the puzzles of Hoban’s dystopia. As Riddley’s journey progresses, legends and rhymes gain additional meaning, and the novel’s pace accelerates until you figure out, only a beat before it happens, the incendiary climax.
Trick Mirror, by Jia Tolentino
In Tolentino’s collection, subtitled “Reflections on Self-Delusion,” nothing is quite as it seems. Through relentless curiosity, it defamiliarizes topics such as workout culture, Jesus, literary protagonists, marriage, and the internet. Tolentino’s criticism lets readers see commonplace ideas split into their constituent parts, revealing overlooked connections between our daily behavior and the subliminal messages American culture sends us. In one standout essay, she experiences the euphoria of MDMA as religious fervor; in another, the office worker’s routine of fast-casual lunch bowls and hypnotic barre classes becomes a series of sinister, almost robotic tune-ups. When the writing is personal, it’s always in service of creating a shared understanding between the author and the reader. And even when Tolentino adopts a more authoritative voice, she retains her intimate tone—she addresses the reader not quite like a friend, but like a person special enough to be let in on her discoveries. Sharing those secrets with an actual friend is even more exciting. There will be plenty to talk about, and the debates that ensue will inspire reflection long after you’re done.
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