Madeline Howard

Books Helped My Relationship Flourish & Stay Close — Here's How

By Madeline Howard

Everyone and their mom knows I love to read. Seriously, if you give me a crisp, unbent paperback and some snacks, I’m content for hours. It’s my preferred vacation activity, my meditative practice, and yeah, I’ll admit that I flaunt a new book on my Insta feed like it’s the season’s must-have closet staple (hello, summer’s leopard midi-skirt). I know what you’re thinking: OK, reading has my heart. So what? But here’s the thing, I never thought reading would actually play an important role in my relationships, too. In fact, books helped my relationship with my boyfriend flourish. Reading has brought us closer than ever.

I guess you could say books have always been a part of our love story. It all started with our first date. After meeting through a mutual friend, my soon-to-be-boyfriend and I wandered the crowded halls of Chelsea Market, sipping milkshakes and eventually, perusing the bookstore tucked into a narrow storefront toward the building’s end. We chatted as we flipped through paperbacks, naming our favorite books (his is The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and mine is Tuesdays With Morrie). Eventually, after we passed the entire section dedicated to J.K. Rowling herself, he mentioned that he’d never read Harry Potter (please, you guys, spare him of your judgments). “You haven’t!” I said, faux-shocked. “OK, well you need to read the first one. At least.” He laughed and said he’d consider it.

I hadn’t given his HP comment a second thought after our butterflies-inducing first date (I was too busy thinking about his precious AF smile, LOL). But a couple of days later, my not-yet boyfriend Snapchatted me a picture of him holding a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. “I’m going to read this, per your recommendation,” he wrote. I rolled my eyes at my phone screen, sure he wasn’t serious. Aside from our fleeting hookups, I’d only been on an actual date with this guy once. College boys? They don’t just read books for girls they barely know. But fast forward through a few nights of flirty texting and alas, he told me he’d finished the book. And OK, fine, my heart freakin’ melted. I knew I’d need to go out with him again.

A month — plus many more dates — later and (shocker) we finally put a label on our relationship. We were dating and, well, we were pretty obsessed with each other (still are, ha). And our conversations about books? They didn’t stop at Harry Potter. We adopted reading and book-recommending as a mode of spending time together, of showing each other what we found interesting or important. We’d lay in bed, sit in coffee shops or the library deliciously flipping pages, not speaking but loving every minute of each other’s presence. But still I knew that in a way, I was holding back.

I’m a lover of all book genres. But look, I’m a sex and dating writer. My work is my passion and because of this, I’m well-read on the topic of how women and femmes navigate their relationships and sexuality. And yet, when I told my boyfriend that one of my all-time favorite reads was Girls & Sex, a book by Peggy Orenstein that explores the way young women come to (falsely) understand their nuanced sexuality, I thought he’d shrug and say, “Cool.” But instead, he ran a finger along the bookshelf in my room until he found my copy. He skimmed the back’s synopsis, smiled, then offered to read it. My reaction? Well, I scoffed. He had to be kidding. It was one thing to read the fiction I loved (I mean, who can say no to Harry?). But a feminist critique of the way our patriarchal society conditions women from birth to lose touch with their own pleasure? Not something a guy would be willing to read, I thought.

But once again, I was wrong. My boyfriend stole the book from me and later, I received a Snapchat of him holding it with the caption, “And so my education begins.” In true fashion, he devoured Girls & Sex in a matter of days. He read it on the subway, at his track meet (he’s a college runner) and even while walking (seriously, my friend saw him doing it and snapped a pic). When he finished, we curled up on the couch and discussed our favorite parts. We talked about how it’s so important to help young women define their sexuality for themselves rather than allow society to define it for them. I told him about my own struggles with finding what’s pleasurable for me and in turn, he told me about the way he sees toxic masculinity ingrained in himself and in his peers.

My boyfriend’s capacity for empathy, his desire to understand the way others see the world is one of the many reasons that I’m in love with him. Reading books is just a single method by which he learns about humanity and in turn, about me. When he sees I’m being pensive, letting my mind run about the shaky state of society, he’ll poke me and say, “Tell me what you’re thinking.” And I will. His eagerness to read the books I love (and to cuddle up next to me while we do our reading) has shown me what it means for someone to be genuinely interested in what goes through my mind, my heart and ultimately, what it means to be completely comfortable in a coexisting silence.

As for now, the reading recs definitely haven’t stopped. He likes to gift me books and I’ll still melt when on the inside cover I find “For Madeline” written in his square-ish handwriting with black, ballpoint pen. It’s safe to say he’s raised my standards, like, 100 levels and TBH, he kind of makes me feel like a fool for all the times I allowed myself to date Awards For Goodboys-esque dudes in the past. And really, if there’s anything I’ve learned from the way books are inked across the many chapters of our ever-evolving relationship, it’s that the story of us will pretty much always be my favorite. Sorry, Harry.