A year ago, I was in a bookshop in the Vancouver International Airport trying to pick a good read for my journey to South Africa to get married to my best friend. As I browsed the shelves, I came across a book called “Love Illuminated: Exploring Life’s Most Mystifying Subject with the help of 50,00 strangers” by Daniel Jones, who has been the editor of the New York Times Modern Love column for the last ten years. As I stood in front of the shelf debating whether I wanted to spend $20 on the book and whether the book would help me in my new married life, an announcement came on the PA system making a last call for the flight I was waiting to board, and so I dropped the book and ran. Since then, I’ve wondered about the book. Reading “Modern Love” is a weekly personal ritual and since I always benefit from reading the column’s stories, I was interested to know what reading thousands of essays from strangers worldwide over the course of a decade had taught Jones about love.
To pursue this question, a few days ago I borrowed the book from the public library and have been reading it steadily over the past few nights. Last night I finished it, and although I enjoyed the read, I’m glad this is not a book that I own. Despite the subtitle of the book (which uses the word exploration rather than lessons) I thought the book would be about love lessons and practical advice one could apply to their own relationship. Instead, the book is organized into ten chapters with each chapter title/subject being one of ten topics related to love. Because the book’s chapters are not structured very clearly though, at times it was not clear where the book was going and the lack of clear direction interfered with my enjoyment of the book.
The ten principles/topics are pursuit/finding the person for you, destiny, vulnerability, connection, trust, practicality, monotony, infidelity, loyalty and wisdom. Each chapter talks about the principle in question but the majority of each chapter is about the flip side of the principle; the things that take place in relationships when things go wrong. The chapter about pursuit for instance, talks about the rise of online dating and the people we miss meeting because we exclude entire categories of people in our preferences and matching algorithms.
The chapter following pursuit discusses vulnerability and explores how many modern relationships (at least those that make it across his desk) strive to avoid vulnerability and are about acting aloof, both behaviours Jones says are aided by technological tools of today. If being aloof is something you are interested in learning how to do, “Love Illuminated” takes a “tongue in cheek” approach and delves into strategies to avoid openness and vulnerability and to maintain your distance from romantic partners. If you’re interested in real connection, the book and specifically the chapter has advice on how to be vulnerable too (Hint: real, grand gestures are good, gestures that are filmed, aimed at viral YouTube popularity or will likely embarrass the recipient are the kind of gestures to stay clear away from).
Building on this discussion, the chapter on connection looks extensively on online relationships and the rise of relationships in which communication through WhatsApp and Gchat and various social media platforms is commonplace, but real, in person communication is rare or nonexistent. For some people who have written their stories for Modern Love, the act of meeting killed their feelings and their love story. Chapter 5, the chapter on Trust, gives advice on how to avoid being conned (avoid someone too normal, or not normal at all) to say that it is impossible to protect yourself against betrayals of trust. As you continue to read, it feels like the book is telling you, there is no way to armour yourself against love, but regardless of the risks, fall in love anyway.
These reminders are important, but the book feels less than a book about love and improving love than a description of the very strange things people do in relationships. Having said that, there are some gems to be had.
“She used to be bolder as a single woman about pursuing things she wanted to do, yet in marriage she had begun to feel meeker and more sheltered – and much more prone to guilt. [..] She also lamented that marriage had allowed her husband to let go of his male friendships, make him more reliant on her and the children for his social life, a typical pattern for many married men.”
Chapter 6, one of my favourite chapters is about practicality and addresses three important pre-marriage discussions: individuality (losing it), identity (choosing a last name) and equality (the division of chores, child care and income). Of these three, though the identity section was hilarious, the individuality section was the most interesting to me, and the advice to “remind yourself constantly, that you ought to be as able and independent within marriage as without it” was valuable.
My other favourite chapter was the chapter on monotony, and I loved the author’s descriptions that over time, marriage inevitably loses its fire and romance and becomes boring, and different people deal with that boredom differently. There are three different kinds of people. The first type either is bitterly resigned and quashes their feelings (these people are called “quashers”) or appreciatively resigned (they are also quashers) and grateful for their relationship and what it has brought and continues to bring to their lives. The second type of person is a “sneaker” who resorts to porn or infidelity to deal with their changing relationship. The final type are the “restorers”. It is this group Jones says, who fund the very profitable marriage improvement industry, and is characterized by high achieving individuals who want the same for their marriage and who are willing to endure grueling regimes of personal questions, heavy reading schedules, therapy, routines of affection (10 hugs a day of 10 seconds each, mandatory kisses on parting etc), date nights, new shared hobbies and more. Seeking to restore can be exhausting however, and Jones argues that it is unclear whether such an aggressive hands-on approach to marriage leads to greater marital happiness. Many restorers ultimately become appreciative quashers, and it is this group in fact that has the happiest marriages and the best health outcomes for the individuals involved.
Is this a book worth reading? On the plus side, it’s a very funny book and is well written. The book reads like a good conversation, and I found myself laughing out loud a lot and reading many of the passages and stories out loud at home to share and discuss. It’s not a book that really gives you concrete advice to improve your relationships (the book is more saying that there is no right way through relationships and judging other relationships is a poor idea) but it is a pleasant read.
The downside however of this book however (and for me this was a major negative of the book), is that this book is terrible on issues of culture and race. In the section on pursuit for example Jones discusses arranged marriages by saying:
“There is no better way of putting your relationship in someone else’s hands than by agreeing to an arranged marriage – that age-old, patriarchal, dowry-exchanging custom still practiced in many cultures around the world, though not, generally, in this one. […] In contrast, Western marriages tend to begin with stratospheric hopes.
I didn’t have an arranged marriage, but Jones is presenting a simplistic understanding of them. They are not necessarily patriarchal, in North America or India they are rarely done nowadays with the bride and groom never having met, and as many South Asian writers explore in their literature, one can be “Western” and grow up in the West, and still have an arranged marriage. By using phrases as “this culture” and “Western marriages”, Jones otherizes people who have arranged marriages as not being from the West, and that is an unnecessarily exclusion. In addition, though this book attempts to tell a wide range of stories, a lot of the stories don’t relate if you’re a person of faith/person of colour. When illustrating a point for example, he asks readers to imagine that point when “someone taps on your shoulder at a bar”, in other parts of the book he discusses the emotional consequences of physical intimacy without commitment and the lines of infidelity in a digital age, (among other topics) but if you don’t frequent bars and have a different rulebook for relationships and gender interactions, this book does not have much to offer, and it is hard to see yourself in its pages. In many ways this book is a reminder that we need more diverse stories and writers in order to have stories of love that feel more inclusive.
Have you read other books about love that do seem to address a fuller set of experiences and address issues of faith and culture and being a person of colour? I read “Love Insha’Allah” a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, but beyond that I can’t think of other titles.
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