Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, love is in the air… but wait a second, what is love, anyway? For anyone who’s ever wanted a satisfying answer to that question — you know, besides, “Baby, don’t hurt me no more” — we’ve put together a list of great books that will challenge your assumptions about love, sex, and relationships. From a surprisingly short history of heterosexuality and an attack on monogamy to a classic novel of betrayal and an exploration of a different sort of love altogether, there’s something to shock, test, and perhaps even titillate you after the jump.
Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality by Hanne Blank
It might feel as old as Adam and Eve, but the concept of heterosexuality (and, for that matter, homosexuality) is only about 150 years old, invented by a German who we might now consider an early gay rights activist. In her smart and subversive new book, Straight, Hanne Blank — who offered similarly mind-blowing revelations on virginity just a few years ago — traces the idea through history, ultimately arguing that heterosexuality is a limiting and outdated social construct.
Against Love: A Polemic by Laura Kipnis
Not a diatribe against romantic love so much as an attack on socially sanctioned, long-term monogamy, Laura Kipnis’ book could throw even the most happily married among us into serious self-doubt. In a style that’s both seductive and provocative, she convinces us that we spend too much time working on and feeling confined within relationships that are supposed to be making us happy. When our life-long lover becomes our jailer and taskmaster, Kipnis argues, adultery is practically heroic. Sneer if you will, but we’d be surprised if Against Love doesn’t get you thinking about whether love as we practice it in 21st-century America needs an update.
A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Love for the Twenty-First Century by Cristina Nehring
A sort of response to Kipnis’ diatribe, Cristina Nehring’s A Vindication of Love is a defense of romance the claims it’s been destroyed by the constricting forces of both patriarchy and feminism. Naming Tristan and Isolde as the founding myth of Western romance, the author delves into our culture’s most influential stories to rescue the fragments of excitement and danger that have been lost over the centuries. Need to give your significant other a subtle hint that you’re sick of dates that consist solely of Chinese food and Netflix? Buy her a copy of this, and things are bound to get more exciting, fast.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
There are countless novels about love that are sure to shake you up, but in our opinion, none of them beats Madame Bovary. Where romance and restlessness and ambition and vanity and ennui combine, there is Emma Bovary — a character who’s unforgivable, courageous, immoderate, empathetic, and just downright pathetic at the same time. Flaubert’s gorgeous, sparklingly clear prose make it impossible not to identify with one of literature’s most famous adulterers, while at the same time despising her for the havoc she wreaks on her family. (We recommend Lydia Davis’ 2010 translation.)
Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage by Stephanie Coontz
Marriage may be an ancient ritual, but as historian Stephanie Coontz reminds us in her retrospective of the institution, it wasn’t always about spending your life with the one you love. From omnisexual antiquity through periods when polygamy reigned or a feudal lord could pair up his vassals without their consent, marriage has been about business and other practical matters for much longer than it’s been about romance. The tales Coontz tells are fascinating, and the argument they serve — that the institution needs to keep evolving rather than stick stubbornly to the conservative values of the 1950s’ “golden age of marriage” — is a timely one.
The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault
Although we’ve tried to keep the academic, postmodern portion of this list to a minimum, we regret to inform you that if you really want to understand how sexuality works in society, you’re going to have to bite the bullet and read this three-volume work by Foucault. But don’t worry — he’s one of the most readable philosophers of his ilk, and the revelations come so frequently and so brilliantly that you’ll constantly be reaching for a highlighter, college freshman-style. If you’re interested in the connections between sexuality, personal identity, and institutionalized power structures, The History of Sexuality is the place to start learning about them.
Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach
Science writing can be daunting, but author Mary Roach is famous for doing it differently; even her book-length investigations of cadavers and the afterlife are page-turners. Bonk finds Roach interrogating the eternal mysteries of sexuality, from the science of orgasm to penis size to the sex lives of animals, with a sense of humor and a daring eagerness to humiliate herself in the pursuit of an entertaining and illuminating anecdote. (At one point, she and her husband have sex in an MRI tube as part of a research project.)
Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson
As we at Flavorpill are all too aware, love isn’t limited to personal relationships — we also develop pretty strong emotions for the art we find meaningful. A book for the invaluable 33 1/3 series, Let’s Talk About Love is nominally an exploration of Celine Dion’s bestselling album of the same name. Really, the record is a framing device for critic Carl Wilson’s engaging investigation of what shapes personal taste, for those of us who love Celine and those who prefer Pavement alike.