"You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world," James Baldwin aptly muses in The Price of the Ticket, "but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive."
It's funny how we often remind each other that, when it comes to romance, happy endings only exist in fairytales. The truth of the matter is that most books about love aren't happy at all. They show us seduction, passion, and romance, sure, but they also confront us with the ugly things that rise in the absence and wake of love: betrayal, loss, contempt, grief, and pretty much anything else that breaks hearts.
Indeed, most books about love are the manifestation of an artist's heartbreak and healing process. The good ones are like a hand-squeeze that says, Hey, I've stood where you're standing. And because misery loves company, there's just something about reading these books in the carnage of a breakup or heartache that feels healing. Our hearts break for all sorts of reasons, and they heal in all sorts of ways, one being through art.
Here are our picks for the best books on love.
All About Love by Bell Hooks
How It Heals: Oh man, this book will really set you free, but first, it will ask you to practice deep and honest reflection about how you love—and if it's really love at all. Though it can be read as a self-help book, it's written like a memoir and an academic text, with Hooks's distinctly sharp style and analytical approach. She delves into the ways we learn how to love by example, and what happens to those who don't have examples of love in their own lives nor in modern society. She unpacks cultural paradigms and dynamics about relationships, respect, and sex to ultimately forge a path toward love that is a verb, not a noun, that is sacred and true, both on a personal and collective, societal level.
Words of Support and Validation: "Contrary to what we may have been taught to think, unnecessary and unchosen suffering wounds us but need not scar us for life. It does mark us. What we allow the mark of our suffering to become is in our own hands."
Tonight I'm Someone Else by Chelsea Hodson
How It Heals: Frank, direct, and shameless, Chelsea Hodson's debut collection is a thing of beauty. It stuns on every page. Her honesty and humility are refreshing and will inspire you to be more patient with your own shortcomings, to accept responsibility for and learn from your mistakes, and to be less afraid of living an unconventional life. And she implicates us in the essays too, saying, "All characters appearing in this work are you. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely you." It's not your average love story, but it'll seduce you with all its musings about longing, desire, lust, self-discovery, and more.
Words of Support and Validation: "For our high school graduation party, our school hired a hypnotist. My best friend volunteered herself, went onstage, fell asleep, and then he had her dancing and singing Backstreet Boys songs. When she woke up again, she walked back to her seat and I tried to tell her what she'd done while she was out, but she said she was awake the whole time. It was easier to just do what he wanted me to do, she said, and I knew what she meant."
So Sad Today by Melissa Broder
How It Heals: So Sad Today is so relentlessly brave and unflinchingly confessional that it makes heartbreak less scary, anxiety and uncertainty less alienating, and imperfections less damning. Broder's hilarious, self-deprecating sense of humor also lightens things up and makes the profound sadness she talks about and stirs up in her readers a little easier to digest and confront.
Words of Support and Validation: "What happens to the space that two people occupied together? How can it just disappear? Why can't it just become something else?"
No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
How It Heals: This is one of those books that takes darkness and turns it into light. While July's short stories are welling up with sadness, her writing has such a levity to it that you will start to see the silver linings all around you. Short and sweet but loaded with messages and lessons, each short story is as whimsical as it is profound, startling, and tender. Each tale is thematically unique, but they each fit within the same direct tone and overall feel, and each character is charmingly awkward, offbeat, and quirky while also managing to be totally relatable. If anyone can help you find rapture in the banal and the optimism amidst pain, it's Miranda July.
Words of Support and Validation: "When you can see the beauty of a tree, then you will know what love is."
Your Art Will Save Your Life by Beth Pickens
How It Heals: Beth Pickens's Your Art Will Save Your Life is a love letter to artists, as well as a pep talk of sorts (but a really eloquent, moving pep talk). She wrote it as a response to Trump's election. Read it if you need to remember how to be hopeful when you're feeling overwhelmed and sad about the state of the world.
Words of Support and Validation: "You are not alone. You have what you need for your life, for art, and for justice. Stay with your creative path, trust your vision, and know that your contributions will matter to someone else."
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
How It Heals: When you want a good story to take you outside of your own pain, read this. It's the kind of book you'll remember forever for its brilliance and beauty. It has a little bit of everything, from family tragedy to forbidden love to political unrest, plus alliteration galore. In this book, everything has a personality, whether it's the house, the feeling, the country, and then the characters themselves, a coffin, and a dead child in the coffin. Reading it is a humbling, eye-opening experience.
Words of Support and Validation: "But what was there to say? Only that there were tears. Only that Quietness and Emptiness fitted together like stacked spoons. Only that there was a snuffling in the hollows at the base of a lovely throat. Only that a hard honey-colored shoulder had a semicircle of teethmarks on it. Only that they held each other close, long after it was over. Only that what they shared that night was not happiness, but hideous grief. Only that once again they broke the Love Laws. That lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much."
Lust & Other Stories by Susan Minot
How It Heals: Lust is about everything but love, really, and what we do in its absence as an attempt to replicate it, even for a moment. You can hear the breathy desperation in the narrator's voice from the first sentence all the way through to the last line. And though she drops us right into a hyper-specific chronicle of lovers from her teenage years, it's impossible not to relate.
Words of Support and Validation: "After the briskness of loving, loving stops. And you roll over with death stretched out alongside you like a feather boa, or a snake, light as air, and you... you don't even ask for anything or try to say something to him because it's obviously your own damn fault. You haven't been able to—to what? To open your heart. You open your legs but can't, or don't dare, anymore, to open your heart."
Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
How It Heals: This collection of poetry is as beautiful and evocative as the title implies, full of lyrical yet relatable narratives that introduce you to the feelings you couldn't previously place. There is also a ton of clever wordplay, so if you're a language nerd, you'll love it. It's about love and loss of all sorts: parental, romantic, platonic, and national. Read this aloud. It will pull you outside of yourself and make you fall in love with language, even if everything else is feeling hopeless. Sometimes you just need to read something beautiful—and this is as beautifully written as it gets, whether Vuong is writing about masturbation, war, dating, or family.
Words of Support and Validation: "& remember, / loneliness is still time spent / with the world."
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
How It Heals: Here's a book that will quite literally show you how to ruin a relationship. But it'll also help you navigate the end of one. Junot Díaz's collection of short stories is a modern-day classic that will no doubt make you feel some kind of way. If you're going through a breakup or have ever experienced heartbreak, it will be especially life changing and comforting (depending on which stage of the breakup you're in, of course). He also captures certain moods and cultural norms that represent the contemporary moment unlike any other.
Words of Support and Validation: "The half-life of love is forever."
Lunch Poems by Frank O'Hara
How It Heals: The title reflects the ease at which Frank O'Hara whips up delicious, silly, insightful lessons out of random observations deemed by most as unimportant. Oh, and he really did just jot these poems down during his lunch break. Take a break from your work and read them during yours. His sweet poems about love will restore you ("Having a Coke With You," we're looking at you).
Words of Support and Validation: "I look at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it's in the Frick which thank heavens you haven't gone to yet so we can go together for the first time and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism."
Zippermouth by Laurie Weeks
How It Heals: Unrequited love, uninspiring desk jobs, claustrophobic cities… Sometimes it just feels like too much. The protagonist makes it all a little more absurd and sardonic, and she's someone who's just fun to relate to and commiserate with. Zippermouth is a gripping, fresh novel that will show you what it's like to live life on the edge. Though on the surface it's a book about a woman's spiral into drug abuse and mental illness while coping with unrequited love, it's so much more than that. Our narrator is bitingly insightful, laugh-out-loud hilarious, and full of related desires the rest of us won't say out loud.
Words of Support and Validation: "I decided I was in love with this girl and I couldn't eat, couldn't sleep. I wanted her to drop by in the afternoon for a nap. It didn't seem likely, but that was part of the pleasure, like the agony of fixating on a dead movie star."
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
How It Heals: You'll especially appreciate this book if you're looking for a book that takes a less conventional approach to the concept of love. Written in a list of personal anecdotes, philosophical theories, random musings, and cultural references all about the color blue, this book defies categorization. Inventive in form and emotionally moving, Maggie Nelson knows how to reach her readers and get them to think and feel with more depth.
Words of Support and Validation: "'We mainly suppose the experiential quality to be an intrinsic quality of the physical object'—this is the so-called systematic illusion of color. Perhaps it is also that of love. But I am not willing to go there—not just yet. I believed in you."
Love Poems by Pablo Neruda
How It Heals: Pablo Neruda is the best writer of love letters to have ever lived, and according to Gabriel García Márquez, the greatest poet to have ever lived in any language. This edition of his poetry includes both the Spanish and English versions.
Words of Support and Validation: "Love is so short, forgetting is so long."
Up next: Our favorite love poem books.