Required Reading, Volume Ten: Love Stories

Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all! I know this holiday can be controversial, whether you’re aggressively single and feeling lonely, or in a relationship and resentful of the capitalist complex that compels you to drop wads of cash on flowers, chocolate, stuffed animals, and more on an arbitrary February day. But personally, despite my usual status among the perpetually single, I love it. And I’ll tell you why.

Valentine’s Day is a celebration of love. But while traditionally that love is directed at a romantic partner, a boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse or lover, I choose to use this day to celebrate all of the love in my life, particularly for the family members and friends who we maybe don’t tell we love them as often as we should. Just because you’re not involved with anybody in a non-platonic way does not mean you don’t have beloveds in your life, and this day can be a day to honor that…and to eat massive amounts of chocolate.

In the Heart Day spirit, this month’s Required Reading is a compilation of love stories (most of them in the traditional, Big L sense). From classics to newcomers, young adult to experimental, non-fiction to graphic novels and everything in between, these are some of my favorite books about what it means to love and be loved.

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Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen: A classic for a reason. Whether it’s your first or fifth or fiftieth time reading it, you can’t help but get swept away by Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth and their tempestuous path to love. The movies are great, the web series delightful, but nothing beats this masterpiece in its original form.

“To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love.”

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The History of Love, Nicole Krauss: I’ve mentioned this book in a post before, and with good reason. It is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read; I’ve recommended it to countless friends and bought it for birthdays and Christmases and just because. It tells the story of romantic love, yes, but also of the love between parent and child, brother and sister, friend and friend in a multi-layered narrative that spans continents and decades.

Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.”

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The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., Adelle Waldman: The most accurate portrayal I’ve found in literature of what it’s like to date in New York in your 20s. If you are a twenty-something, or you were once a twenty-something, you will find characters and misadventures here that you recognize.

“Dating is probably the most fraught human interaction there is. You’re sizing people up to see if they’re worth your time and attention, and they’re doing the same to you. It’s meritocracy applied to personal life, but there’s no accountability. We submit ourselves to these intimate inspections and simultaneously inflict them on others and try to keep our psyches intact – to keep from becoming cold and callous – and we hope that at the end of it we wind up happier than our grandparents, who didn’t spend this vast period of their lives, these prime years, so thoroughly alone, coldly and explicitly anatomized again and again.”

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Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro: Warning: Read this one with a box of Kleenex. Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy grow up together, students at a strange boarding school called Hailsham. But what starts as a seemingly typical love triangle quickly devolves into something much darker as the trio discover their history and grapple with their inescapable reality. Like the best of Ishiguro’s work, it will devastate you, enlighten you, and make you reexamine your humanity.

“I keep thinking about this river somewhere, with the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it’s just too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, drift apart. That’s how it is with us.”

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The Shipping News, Annie Proulx: A quiet love story set among the cliffs and crashing waves of Newfoundland, this novel sneaks up on you. Quoyle is a man who has grown accustomed to being overlooked, scathed into submission by his unstable, unfaithful wife. When she dies in a car crash (having abandoned Quoyle and their two children to run off with one of her lovers), he moves the small family back to his family’s ancestral home where they all set about the task of learning to love and be loved. The colorful cast of village characters will amuse you, the descriptions of the desolate landscape will dazzle you, but it is the love story at the book’s core that will creep quietly into your heart and sit there long after you’ve turned the last page.

“We’re all strange inside. We learn how to disguise our differences as we grow up.” (I also love “One of the tragedies of real life is that there is no background music.”)

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Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed: The best book I’ve found yet that teaches you how to love and be loved. Strayed is gentle but firm, kind but unflinchingly honest. This is another favorite one of mine to give friends or family members as a gift; there is something in it for everyone. My only regret is that there isn’t a way to bring the real Strayed with me everywhere as my fairy godmother and advice dispenser to guide me through life’s ups and downs.

“Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.”

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The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern: This star-crossed tale about two young illusionists is positively enchanting, much like Le Cirque des Rêves where it takes place. Celia and Marco have been trained their whole lives to compete against each other in a magical duel (which, unbeknownst to them, only one magician can survive). But when they meet, their connection is instantaneous, passionate, and spell-binding. And the book is as enchanting as the illusions they weave, spinning whole worlds from paper and will.

“Most maidens are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves in my experience, at least the ones worth something, in any case.”

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The Lover’s Dictionary, David Levithan: Brilliant and beautiful and sad, this slim volume, as the title suggests, tells the story of a relationship in dictionary entries. Each definition treads the line between prose and poetry, and as the words pile up a picture of a romance (and, spoiler alert, its demise) gradually emerges. It is a deceptively fast read the first time through, but deserves many a revisit (and as a bonus, Levithan continues to write new entries on his Twitter).

“The key to a successful relationship isn’t just in the words, it’s in the choice of punctuation. When you’re in love with someone, a well-placed question mark can be the difference between bliss and disaster, and a deeply respected period or a cleverly inserted ellipsis can prevent all kinds of exclamations.”

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Why We Broke Up, Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman: Not all love stories last forever. Min and Ed’s is ending, right now. As she writes him a break-up letter to accompany the box she will drop at his house, filled with the detritus of a relationship, she goes through the objects one by one, weaving a tale of first love that will take you right back to adolescence. Maira Kalman’s gorgeous illustrations add another dimension to this intimate, sweet, honest portrait of first love.

“Ed, it was everything, those nights on the phone, everything we said until late became later and then later and very late and finally to go to bed with my ear warm and worn and red from holding the phone close close close so as not to miss a word of what it was, because who cared how tired I was in the humdrum slave drive of our days without each other. I’d ruin any day, all my days, for those long nights with you, and I did. But that’s why right there it was doomed. We couldn’t only have the magic nights buzzing through the wires. We had to have the days, too, the bright impatient days spoiling everything with their unavoidable schedules, their mandatory times that don’t overlap, their loyal friends who don’t get along, the unforgiven travesties torn from the wall no matter what promises are uttered past midnight, and that’s why we broke up.”

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Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell: Speaking of first love, this is another utterly wonderful, not the least bit sappy book about a first romance. To the outside world, Eleanor and Park are an unlikely pair, but these misfits discover that their weird and quirky pieces fit together like a perfect puzzle. That’s not to say that everything is hearts and roses — Eleanor’s home life in particular adds a dark element to their love story — but they love each other, as much as they can, for as long as they can, and they don’t give a damn what anybody else thinks about it. This book is sweet and will give you all the warm fuzzy butterflies of a delicious 16 year-old crush…but you might want to keep some tissues handy, just sayin’.

“You saved my life, she tried to tell him. Not forever, not for good. Probably just temporarily. But you saved my life, and now I’m yours. The me that’s me right now is yours. Always.”

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This Modern Love, Will Darbyshire: Yes, this is yet another YouTuber book, this one courtesy of angsty British charmer Will Darbyshire. But unlike his peers, whose books tend to fall into the memoir/humor category, Darbyshire follows in the tradition of Post Secret with a crowd-sourced compilation covering all things love. Over the course of six months, he posed various questions to his viewers — What would you say to your ex, without judgement? How has technology affected your relationship, either positively or negatively? What single word sums up your love life, your partner, or someone you like? — and then distilled the responses into this book. The letters range from funny to reflective, sarcastic to sincere, and together form a portrait of what it looks like to navigate love in the 21st century.

“Dear —, You are like that one piece of artwork in an art gallery that people spend a little longer admiring. Rosa, UK.”

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Soppy, Philippa Rice: And last but not least, now for something completely different, a graphic novel! British artist Rice documents the everyday life of herself and her boyfriend, a parade of small, everyday moments that add up to intimacy and love. It’s sweet but, despite the title, not saccharinely so. Rice doesn’t shy away from the fights or inconveniences of sharing your life with another person, and the portrait she paints is a complete one, true to the quiet reality of true love.

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