What was the last good book you read?

I first met one of my very good friends several Summers ago, when I was staying with her in California. I agree, it seems a little presumptuous to move in to someone’s family home before you have even met them, but we had a mutual friend, and well, I have never let something like ‘presumption’ stop me from having an excellent time.

The second day of my visit, we were walking around San Francisco together. Ignoring my own advice never to ask questions about other people, I turned to my new friend. ‘What was the last good book you read?’ I asked. She stared at me. I stared back. (I was wearing sunglasses, so I felt comfortable staring at people pretty much constantly).

‘Um,’ She began awkwardly. ‘I’m not really much of a reader.’ I continued to stare at her while I wondered what to say next.

See, there are some questions that strike fear in everyone. ‘What kind of music do you like?’ or ‘Are you sporty?’

This is because, whilst purporting to be ‘getting-to-know-you’ questions, they are actually accusatory, impossible-to-navigate tests. Personally, I like to whack a tennis ball about, or be thrashed on the squash court, or do at least 3 press-ups before my arms hurt.

Does that make me ‘sporty’? Is ‘sporty’ a pejorative term? Will I be asked to list my sporting idols in alphabetical order? Is there going to be a fitness test?

Asking a generic, compromising question achieves the precise opposite of ‘getting to know someone’; sending them into a swirly panic of self-doubt and blankness. Which is why I like to ask a specific, answer-driven question. Until this particular friend, it had never failed. People thought for a second, and then told me the last book they could remember. It was both simple and intensely revealing. (To the lady who said, ‘A Midsummer’s Night Dream’, shame on you. You’re 26 years old. You should have read something new since Year 8).

It is testament to the excellence of my friend that we got past this dreadful, gaping conversational black hole that she had created. And seeing as all good stories deserve a happy ending, I wanted to share this with you: currently on holiday in Brazil, she texted me excitedly to let me know that she had ‘finished an entire book with words!’ and told me that I could ‘check’ this statement with our mutual friend. Which, I feel, very quickly reveals the compact perfection of ‘What was the last good book you read?’

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