Judging people on a specific behaviour or habit of theirs is obviously fairly limiting; I for one would not come off well if judged on the speed with which I reply to WhatsApp messages. I would be found wanting. But we all have our methods, our metrics for ascertaining whether a new acquaintance will become a friend or a new crush will become a lover. Little things we almost can’t help but assess them on.
We’ve been talking about bookcases a lot recently, as politicians and commentators appear on Zoom in front of carefully curated shelves. It’s diverting to remark on the presence of dictator biographies, or large numbers of tomes on wars and military endeavours. And of course there is something in the conclusions we draw; what you choose to keep on display in your home definitely says something about you, whether you intend it to or not. A friend has taken to calling me the ‘Hardback Queen’ because apparently I have a surprising number of them – until this, I hadn’t even noticed. (I keep meaning to tell him it sounds like a nickname from a niche porn film.)
This piece got me thinking more about the small things that give away a lot about someone. It could just as easily have been written about tea; there is something incredibly tender at the heart of making someone a hot drink. We don’t remember the steaming mugs that have been put down in front of us in quite the same way we recall incredible dinners or expensive cocktails, but there are some cups that can’t be forgotten. One February weekend in 2012, I was staying with my boyfriend of the time at his student flat in Bristol, and the cold I’d been fighting for days turned nasty. He decided we should stay in bed, and when he brought me a cup of tea, it tasted sweeter than normal. “Did you put sugar in this?” I asked. “Only half a teaspoon,” he replied. “I know you don’t normally but you need all the strength you can get.” It was that weekend I realised I was properly in love with him. I didn’t tell him for another four months, mind; he hadn’t said those three weighty words and I didn’t have the courage to show my hand first. I don’t think I ever will.
When we lived togther a few years later, he brought me tea in bed fairly regularly at weekends, as in the week, I left the house before he was up. Tea or coffee in bed is such a treat because it requires someone else to be there. An unasked-for cup of tea is a pure act of love. Whenever I stay at my parents’ now, my mum brings me a cup of tea in the morning, and I will never ever tell her that I prefer coffee first thing. It would be tantamount to saying “I do not want your love”.
I’m working on a theory that you can tell a lot about a person by spending some time in a bookshop with them. Firstly, can you spend time with them in a bookshop at all? You don’t just pop in and out of a bookshop; they are destinations, not thoroughfares. You wander, you read a few pages here, a few pages there, you see if they have your favourite-ever books in stock because even though you already own those books, if this shop has them, it is a Good Bookshop and can be trusted. You visit most of the sections, too – beware the person who gives the current bestsellers a once-over then hovers impatiently by ‘Humour’. Beware the person who heads straight to the ‘personal development’ shelves and tells you why Jordan Peterson is brilliant, actually. Or the person who makes a beeline for the biographies of tech bros. But note: you’re not judging people for what they choose to read; you’re judging them on what they limit themselves to. Someone who willingly explores 80% of the shelf space is promising.
I think my bookshop theory is simply an update of the music taste theory, beloved of nerdy teenagers everywhere. In your teenage years, you think you can tell everything that matters about a person from their taste in music. You think you can draw conclusions from what they listen to when they’re sad, when they’re joyful, when they’re furious. You’re not wholly wrong, mind, but the theory evolves as you grow. I can still discuss music endlessly – and will still mock friends lovingly for liking things I think are crap – but there’s no judgement in it now. Or less judgement, anyway. I’m softer on most things and harder on a few; I have no time for men in their twenties saying Madonna should stop being Madonna. I have no time for, say, indie rock purists slagging off Taylor Swift. I have no time for acoustic guitar-playing singer-songwriters being written off as whiny or miserable. As with books, with music: it’s about what you limit yourself to. We can even talk about jazz if you really want.
Other ways to really get to know someone: have sex with them more than twice. Say no to them. Say no to something while having sex with them. Accidentally drop a plate or knock over a full glass. I’m a normal amount of clumsy but I used to apologise profusely to the aforementioned boyfriend when I broke or spilled something in our flat. He would look nonplussed – “it’s… fine? We’ll just clear it up, I’ll get the hoover” – and I would mumble about shouty parents. It took me a long time to not panic over spilt milk.
Break up with them. Oh, if you want to really know someone, break up with them. Weather the dismantling of a years-long relationship with them. You think you’ve seen each other at your respective worsts and then you embark upon the admin of endings and it turns out you hadn’t seen anything yet.
Piecing someone together from the fragments they offer up over time should never stop being a joy. But if you need a shortcut: take them to a bookshop. Show me the reader and I’ll show you the man.