"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 goods one are like a hand-squeeze that says, Hey, I've stood where you're standing, yet here's this beautiful thing I turned it into so we can witness each other and find a connection. 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.
The books about love and loss below are just some of the things that got me through tough moments. Learn about them below and then add the ones that speak to you to your own bookshelf.
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."
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."
How It Heals: Sometimes all you need is the title of this book to feel seen. But you'll likely want more, and each poem is like sitting down with your grumpy but wise and highly entertaining old uncle. Charles Bukowski's work has been known to instigate many a debate about misogyny. But misogynistic or not, his crass poetry is worth reading with a discerning eye and when you need someone to commiserate with (among other things, of course).
Words of Support and Validation: "And you invented me and I invented you and that's why we don't get along on this bed any longer."
How It Heals: I read this book in one sitting the weekend after I graduated from college. Unsure of what my next move was or when it would happen, it was a scary time, indeed—and this book was what I needed. 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. Her 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 easy 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?"
How It Heals: This is one of those books that takes darkness and turns it into light. While her 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."
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."
How It Heals: When you want a good story to take you outside of your own pain, read this. It's 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, political unrest, and alliteration galore. We witness the interconnection between the details and the bigness, both good and bad. 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."
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 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 to relate. I read it while I was a college student, navigating a hookup culture marked by sexism and wrapped up in youthful desperation, desire, loneliness, confusion, and all that distracting and confusing stuff… It made me feel less alone, though it's haunted me ever since.
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."
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 he's writing about masturbation, war, dating, or family.
Words of Support and Validation: "& remember, / loneliness is still time spent / with the world."
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 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."
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," I'm 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."
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."
How It Heals: This is the first book I read after a recent breakup, and it's the only thing that brought me comfort. Read it for yourself, heartbroken or not, and you'll see what I mean. You'll especially appreciate it 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."
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."