So…Valentine’s Day. Though it’s a holiday most people have mixed feelings towards, it gives us a good opportunity to think about love, and romance, particularly what it means to us on a personal level and what we think philosophically. My favourite thing about love is that the same thing that makes us warm in the heart, and gives us butterflies in the stomach can so easily turn into a hideous scar leaving us all walking wounded. The line between love and hate so thin, and it always amazes me how two people can go from being together every second of every day, absolutely besotted, to avoiding each other like the plague. It’s both sad and hilarious. It’s sad when you’re the kid of divorced parents, it’s heartbreaking when it’s happening to you and it feels like someone tore off a limb, but watching it happen from far away, there is some humour in all this melancholic drama.
That said, love—when it’s happening— is absolutely beautiful, particularly in the many forms and shapes it has: how, with whom, and its duration. Whatever societal obstacle may be, there is one undeniable truth: love is love is love. Love is sometimes not even separated by death and the living continues living, forever loving the departed—I’m sure there are necromancy love novels re-imagining a happy alternative to the tragic reality. Love can happen for a month, or ten years, or a lifetime, and no one else can deny that it happened just because of its brevity. We are ready to accept that Rose and Jack loved each other in Titanic when it lasted less than three days, or that Romeo and Juliet are in love as young teenagers who know each other for less than a week. Likewise, if the love dissolves over time it doesn’t mean that it never happened. Most importantly, no one else has the right to deny the way you feel, or decide how you choose to love—you alone can know how it happens to you, and how you feel. In that respect love is very much like pain: a personal experience that can never be fully expressed because language is too limited for its complexity. The way these little wounds or loves happen can influence the ways you live your life henceforth, what you look for in other people, and how you interact with the world around you. Other people denying the existence of certain kinds of love does not make it any less real for the people living it. Above all else, the way you love, and the people you love influence the books you read and your relationship to that literature (see I made it about books eventually).
My favourite kind of romance in literature has always been when it’s love between two incredibly broken people. My two favourite “romances” are Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (which many argue is not even a romance), and The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. In both cases, the main characters are absolutely broken (as individuals), and broken down by society, and the past (Heathcliff by poverty, class structure, and child abuse, and Hanna by the Holocaust in which she was an active participant: detailed analysis of that here). There’s also the ‘messed up/one-sided’ kind of love bred out of pure insecurity and need for possession without consummation like in Fowler’s The Collector, or the kind where it ends miserably like in Anna Karenina, Revolutionary Road, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or Madame Bovary. And that got me wondering just how much of love is exciting and thrilling because something in society finds it shameful and/or problematic. If there were no boundaries, restrictions, or societal pressures, how would ‘free’ love look like? How would love without any problems, hiccups, or prejudices even look like? But for the sake of not going down the rabbit hole of my weird state of mind, I am going to list some books that are at least semi-appropriate for Valentine’s day. I am going to just assume that most people have read: Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and due to recent films you’ve read or heard of Call Me By Your Name, Carol, Brokeback Mountain, He’s Just Not that Into You, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and The Bridget Jones Diary—or that if you haven’t read them you’ve at least heard of them and know the premise.
My difficulties here lie in whether love is necessarily tied to sex. For instance, should George Bataille’s book Erotism: Death and Sensuality, The Kama Sutra, or Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom count as Valentine’s reads? Did I enjoy them? Yes. Should I recommend them for Valentine’s Day? I don’t know. If you can have one-sided love, and love without sex, then is counting sex with the absence of deep affection, appropriate for a ‘Valentine’ tradition? And what about self-love? As in, when a character is self-sufficient, invests in themselves, and has no interest in anyone else in a self-kind, non-selfish way. Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game for instance contains such a character, who is constantly looking within and focusing on his own spiritual journey. I started wondering, if I was sitting down with Plato and his fellow characters in The Symposium, and the topic of love came up: what would my input be? Would I fight with Aristophanes and argue that our goal isn’t to find our missing half, but to become whole before joining lives with someone else—being self-sufficient and happy as an individual?
A simple ‘love and romance’ search on Goodreads reading lists has given me so many variations: bad boy, forbidden, literary, angsty, violent, funny, bikers, erotica written by men, ‘I’ve loved you for years,’ time-travelling, historical…after page three they start to sound like porn categories: “the sexy teacher,” “the bad boy vampire’…endless choices my friends. You can mix and match for years! I can’t do justice to all the lists and all the forms. So instead I’m going to tell you some of my personal favourites followed by suggestions I’ve received from others…because I clearly haven’t read everything. I’m going to try to combine different kinds of love with different literary genres as well. Space-alien love counts too. My platform, my rules.
Few of My Suggestions
(from the little ‘romance’ category I’ve read—aside from all the ones mentioned above)
- The Symposium by Plato
- The Seducer’s Diary by Soren Kierkegaard
- The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy
- Desire Between Women in Literature by Emma Donoghue
Biographical and semi-biographical works:
- Why Be Normal when You Can Be Happy by Jeanette Winterson
- The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
- Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters (historical romance, lesbian love)
- Peter Darling by Austin Chant (trans-gendered Wendy/Peter Pan retelling)
- Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold (Science Fiction, different planets)
- Persuasion by Jane Austen (Regency Period, classic, second chances, regret)
- Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos (epistolary, French, seduction games)
- The Lover by Marguerite Duras (French novel, set in China, age gap, interracial)
- Nana by Emile Zola (lady of the night, France, polyamory)
Suggested by Others (I have not read yet)
- If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
- Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo
- The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
- The Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
- Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
- Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
- The Princess Bride by William Goldman
- Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
- The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
- Tinman by Sarah Winman
- Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
- Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
- A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
- Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
Cheers everybody! Love others, love yourself, and LOVE books!