Though “love” is an expansive word containing a multitude of meanings, most of us have a rather restricted definition of the term. Love, we believe, is limited to wedding bands and chocolate-covered strawberries, candy hearts and Valentine’s Day cards. Rather than celebrate love in all its fathomless forms, we tend to glorify romantic love. Indeed, our monomaniac obsession dominates films and top 40 music charts.
Despite our cultural fixation with eros, there are many perhaps more important and enduring types of love. In her gorgeous, glorious book Conversations on Love, generous spirit Natasha Lunn celebrates reading (and writing) as one as of the purest, most perfect expressions of love. If love is— as Lunn suggests— “a way of understanding and being understood, of seeing and being seen,” nowhere can we find more love than in the shelves of a local library.
Though as human beings, we fundamentally want connection, companionship, and community, we’re more lonely than ever before. We’re not getting married, we’re having less sex, and studies show we have fewer close confidantes. Books offer the intimacy we lack in the alienated modern world. What’s wonderful about books— and films and paintings and poems— is they connect us with the finest minds from centuries and civilizations ago. With the turn of a page, a lonesome 21st century reader can find a friend in Tolstoy or Kafka, Hemingway or Fitzgerald.
Like a close friend who comforts us during dark nights of the soul, a good book can cheer and console. Books remind us we’re not alone in our anxiety and neurosis, our despair and sorrow. Losing ourselves in the world of another, we realize our feelings belong to the whole of the human race— not us alone. Books are rafts we can cling to when life’s thunder-stricken storms leave us stranded far from shore.
In her insightful interview from Conversations on Love, unflinchingly honest memoirist Sarah Hepola suggests reading can be an inexhaustible source of love. Though she has yet to meet someone in her 40s, her life isn’t without a love story: she has the love of family and friends and, most of all, of books and writing.
Poet J.D. McClatchy once observed that “love is the quality of attention we pay to things.” Sadly, most of us overlook the simple pleasures and little delights our lives bring. The first cup of coffee in the morning. A bouquet of tulips. The fact that nearly every day we possess the freedom to do whatever we want. Instead of notice the magical and miraculous, we focus on what we don’t have, what we have yet to achieve, why who we are and what we’ve accomplished isn’t good enough. Our habit is to stumble mindlessly, mechanically. Our natural state is discontent, dissatisfaction, craving. But to be happy, we must shift our perspective and appreciate our bountiful blessings. As Hepola writes so beautifully,
“As humans we have a default setting that’s cranky and lazy and self-interested and slothful. The people that I see that live good, meaningful lives have rigorous exercises to push back against that setting, whether through prayer, meditation, gratitude journals or running. We’re creatures of wanting, but also of consciousness. So the way that we can push back on longing is to pay attention to what we have. I can see the fact that I live in a house alone as a prison sentence. Or, like this morning, I can wake up and spend time with my beautiful cat and feel so grateful to be alive in this world.”
When Hepola feels lonely or self-pitying, she finds company in her library. For her, reading is a passionate love affair, a marriage of two like-minded souls. The pages of a book are a one-of-a-kind space where two people— of different genders, of different races, of different ages, of different sexual orientations, of different cultures— can infiltrate the walls of “us” vs “them” and find commonalities where there seem to be none. In those magical moments when a book expresses exactly something she’s seen or heard or thought or felt, she remembers her interconnectedness with all of humanity and feels less alone:
“[Reading] is an emotional realignment, like somebody’s cracked my spine. If I get lonely, I reach for those pieces of writing that feed the soul. That can lead you back to the best in yourself, or articulate the things that you can’t find words for. When you stumble on something you didn’t know that somebody else felt too, you think, oh my gosh, I’m not the only one. That is a falling in love— it’s the self recognized in someone else. A union of souls.”
When asked Lunn’s final question— “what do you wish you’d known about love”— Hepola responds:
“That the love of a partnership can be an incredibly important and transforming experience, but only one of many important and transforming experiences…I think that the search for love, as I understand a lot of my life and my work to be, is also the search to see that I already have it.”
For more warm-hearted wisdom on the love, read Natasha Lunn on love, loneliness & the torment of not knowing, Alain de Botton on idealization as the opposite of love & the manifold miraculous ways to live this life, Juno Dawson on having high standards while dating, and Emily Nagoski on the myth of “normalcy” & how letting go of impossible expectations can improve your sex life.