Happy Valentine’s Day from The Texas Observer! We’d like to use the occasion as a shameless excuse to share some of our writers’ favorite books about love—be they memoirs, cultural histories, or novels.
The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk
Recommended by Anis Shivani
Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence (2009) stands out for me as the most remarkable recent love story. Perhaps not since the 1960s has a novelist of world repute tried to cover the different paradoxes of love on such a grand scale. What is the distinction between love and obsession? Does one have to sacrifice identity to be truly in love? In other Pamuk novels, politics are often prominent, but here the politics of the authoritarian 1980s in Turkey recede into the background as the single-minded pursuit of Kemal for his distant relative Füsun makes him rediscover himself as a nobody. Kemal spends night after night at Füsun’s home over many years, craving the slightest nearness, while Füsun carries on with another man. Recently Pamuk has added another dimension with the remarkable museum he has laboriously constructed to document Kemal’s love in the form of the minutiae of the era; the museum’s catalog—or rather Pamuk’s philosophy of love and of novel-writing—is available in an astounding art book called The Innocence of Objects (2012).
Love in the Western World by Denis de Rougemont
Recommended by Steven G. Kellman
Inundated with erotic images, one might believe that romantic love is universal. However, as François de la Rochefoucauld observed: “There are some people who would never have fallen in love if they had never heard of love.” A social construction, love was, according to Denis de Rougemont, invented in medieval Provence. In Love in the Western World (1939), de Rougemont identifies troubadour poetry as the origin of a condition he traces through to Hollywood. Though biological coupling is ancient, the exaltation of passion as a transcendent state was new to the Middle Ages, an era of religious mysticism. Saint Valentine was a third-century Roman, but it was not until the 14th century that he was celebrated as the patron of love. On Valentine’s Day, Love in the Western World provides an antidote to the reification and deification of love.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Recommended by Brad Tyer
Punk godmother Patti Smith’s memoir of her formative years is swimming in love: love of words; love of books; love of Smith’s youthful co-conspirator, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe; and love, maybe most of all, for the New York City of the late 1960s and early ’70s, which nurtured all the love above in a way that seems almost hopelessly romantic from a distance of over 40 years. The book has its quirks—Smith’s beloved “for,” for example, is an unsalvageably stilted synonym for “because”—but anyone capable of producing the album Horses can be forgiven that and a whole lot more.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Recommended by Patrick Michels
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie deftly avoids a common pitfall of so many will-they-won’t-they love stories, abruptly ending her novel at the moment that central question is resolved. Along the way, though, Americanah takes you through decades of urban development and political strife in Nigeria, two central characters’ immigration to two different countries, and meditations on the meaning of race in the United States. There’s a lot going on here. The central love story, the tale of an old college couple that never got the satisfaction of a proper break-up, carries it all well, tying together a story about rediscovering people and places we once thought we knew.
Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
Recommended by Elizabeth Stewart
This book is often celebrated (and taught in college classrooms) for its gimmick: The enigmatic narrator’s gender is never revealed, making the love story therein possibly queer, possibly not. Narrative intentions and questions of heterosexual or homosexual aside, Written on the Body is unforgettably smart, wry, and gorgeous. Although at first it’s difficult not to assign pronouns to said narrator, eventually you forget about whatever genitalia the storyteller might have because it doesn’t ultimately matter. The story isn’t about that. It’s about the narrator’s love for the redheaded Louise, what that love means, and how having a savior complex serves only yourself. At the beginning the narrator asks, “Why is the measure of love loss?” and by the end we’ve figured out that it doesn’t have to be.
A Fine Old Conflict by Jessica Mitford
Recommended by Robert Leleux
For those in search of a romantic read, I’d recommend Jessica Mitford’s A Fine Old Conflict, one of my all-time favorite books. Among the 20th century’s finest muckrakers, Mitford was also—much like her good friend Molly Ivins—a fierce politico and a legendary humorist. This memoir chronicles her time as a card-carrying Communist, for which she makes no apologies. It’s a fascinating, rigorous history, and it’s also a scream. (Few writers could make you weep with laughter over the evils of McCarthyism.) A Fine Old Conflict is also the story of Mitford’s marriage to Bob Treuhaft, one of the nation’s pluckiest lefty lawyers. The story of their romance, laughter, activism and partnership is something I keep with me always.