“He mentioned in his bio that he liked Virginia Woolf and I was like, ‘Ah! The dream boy,” says Francesca, 34, who met her boyfriend Andy on Tinder. They spent two years as friends, exchanging books and chatting about Mrs Dalloway, until one day Francesca had a revelation during lockdown: “I was like, I miss you so much – I think I love you,” she says.
Andy gave her an illustrated collection of love letters between Woolf and her lover Vita Sackville-West: “If there’s anything that inspired our relationship it would be a lesbian love story from the 1930s,” she says. Last year, they went to Hampton Court for “a Vita and Virginia date,” she says. “We joke we’ll get some fish named after them, too.”
Readers are in demand on dating apps. In 2017 eHarmony found that women who expressed an interest in books on their profiles received 3% more messages than the average, while men saw a massive 19% jump. (Literary men are extremely desirable, as the 1.3m followers of the Hot Dudes Reading Instagram account can attest.) Book Lovers, a site founded in 2010 for readers looking for romance with other readers, now has 3,000 members.
But, unlike most dating apps, there’s no algorithm on Book Lovers to match brooding Byron fans or wistful Woolf enthusiasts. “We prefer to leave it to serendipity,” says Book Lovers co-founder David Unwin. “It gives people an easy conversation starter – ‘Who are your favourite authors?’, ‘What are you reading at the moment?’ It’s a slower approach than some sites, such as Tinder, but we think it’s a more human one and will lead to longer-lasting relationships.”
But Hayley Quinn, dating coach at Match.com who has amassed more than 100,000 YouTube subscribers thanks to her frank relationship advice, is sceptical of a love based on literature. “Shared interests can be a bit of a red herring,” she says. “The big compatibility things are how you communicate with each other and what ideas you have around commitment. If you absolutely despise your date’s favourite author, it could lead to a really fun and heated conversation and send sparks flying – but it wouldn’t necessarily set up for long-term compatibility.”
Beth, a 25-year-old book blogger from Berkshire, has tried to find love both with and without literature. “I’ve had two long-term relationships in my life and one of them has been with a reader and one of them hasn’t,” she says. “I think there’s something beautiful for me in sitting down with someone that you care about and picking up a book and enjoying that together, rather than one of you scrolling through their phone. There’s a level of intellect that’s untapped. When you both read, it just allows for discussion and debate that can go on for hours. It’s fascinating.”
Like anyone looking for love, readers have their own dating red flags. Some are running jokes online – male readers who profess to love David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest are widely suspected to be chauvinists or show-offs looking to impress – but other put-offs are more personal. “I’d have a problem being with someone who really liked Jack Reacher,” says James, a 63-year-old Book Lovers user in Canterbury. “They’re competent novels but I like DH Lawrence and Joseph Conrad. When I was at university, liking DH Lawrence would make you kind of trendy. Although, I did leave Oxford a virgin … so it didn’t really work.”
Without an app, many bibliophiles discover the horror lurking in their suitor’s shelves only when they make it as far as the bedroom. “I fell head over heels for a guy who worked with my friend,” says 25-year-old Emma from London. “On the third date he invited me over to cook dinner for me. I walked in and knew it would never work. His shelves were filled with science fiction cartoon books. That was it. And they were alphabetised.”
Meanwhile, Katie, 25, who coupled up on a night out, was put off by her date’s judgment of her own reading tastes. “He was beautiful, brown-eyed, knew how to use apostrophes – husband material,” she says. “One evening we went back to mine and he was looking at my bookshelf. I had The Secret History by Donna Tartt and Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. He said, ‘I’m a big bookworm but some of these are a bit cliche,’ in a really standoffish manner, which I couldn’t tell if I found sexy or not. I asked, ‘Well, what else do you like reading,’ and he goes, ‘I really like this thing called Lord of the Rings’. He’d literally only read those three books.”
Far from empty snobbery, research suggests judging someone on their literary tastes can provide a telling insight into their personality. A 2016 scientific study involving more than 3,000 students at the University of Texas concluded that romance readers are warm and understanding, poetry lovers are calm and introspective, erotic novel enthusiasts are outgoing and incautious, while non-fiction lovers are well organised and self-assured.
Quinn acknowledges that reading has certain compatibility indicators. “Books,” she says, “could be one way to see if someone has a similar world view to us. If you like the same sort of books, there’s an argument you could have a similar education or background.”
On the hunt for love, a dating service catering to readers may not replace the magic of a chance encounter. “If you have this coincidental, Notting Hill meeting with someone, that creates a better platform to lend more significance to them in your mind,” says Quinn. “When we look at lots of dating profiles, we get banner blind that there are actual humans behind them. It’s not that there are better quality people at a bookshop, but we really associate things like coincidence and serendipity with sparks flying and romance.”
Luckily for bookworms, touching hands with a stranger when reaching for the same copy of Wuthering Heights may not be as rare as it sounds. Daunt Books manager Brett Croft says many couples have locked eyes in the long oak galleries and quiet corners of their Edwardian Marylebone store in London. “People often ask if they can propose or get married here because that’s where they met,” he says. “People hide rings in the book that sparked their original conversation. And all they said was, ‘That’s a fantastic book, you should read it.’”
But whether a love for books really helps in the search for romance, for some singletons it’s non-negotiable, no matter what the science says. “I feel like I owe it to myself to be able to find somebody that has this one thing in common with me,” says Beth. “There’s something in books – the sheer wonder of being able to jump in and explore a complete other world. I want to be with somebody who understands that.”