On Love: Book Recommendations from the SAL Staff
February 11, 2021
What books about love do you love?
Lately, the staff at Seattle Arts & Lectures have been sharing and chatting a lot about this essay by Matthew Salesses, which came out this past August. In it, Salesses scrutinizes the popular belief that literary fiction gives rise to empathy in readers—and whether empathy can even be a source of meaningful antiracist change.
“Empathy is a passive act, if it is an action at all,” he writes. “It isn’t a way to experience other people’s experiences, only a way to test your own limitations.” Another option? Love. “To love is to confess love, to make love, to show love. Love starts with recognizing those limitations, and then goes on, giving power to the other.”
Salesses’ essay has led to some fascinating conversations about the differences between empathy and love: who has the most freedom to empathize, to imagine themselves as an Other? What does it look like when we center love, not empathy, when we think about other people? And what role can reading play in doing so?
With this way of looking at love in mind, we wanted to take a moment to celebrate some of the wonderful poems, novels, and memoirs that have touched us over the years, celebrating the many paths that love can take, and celebrating what the action of loving asks of us, too.
Alicia, Director of Education
This is not really thought of generally as a book about love, but when I was growing up I loved the book From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg—about the sibling duo that runs away from home to go live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. Despite the fact that this is about siblings (haha!), I write this quote below in wedding cards whenever friends get married, because I love how it describes the phenomenon of becoming a team with someone:
What happened was they became a team, a family of two. There had been times before they ran away when they had acted like a team, but those were very different from feeling like a team. Becoming a team didn’t mean the end of their arguments. Bit it did mean that the arguments became a part of the adventure, became discussions not threats. To an outsider the arguments would appear to be the same because feeling like part of a team is something that happens invisibly. You might call it caring. You could even call it love. And it’s very rarely, indeed, that it happens to two people at the same time.
Alison, Communications Manager
My pick is Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, written in Paris in the years after Go Tell It on the Mountain was released. This is a novel I found in my late teens that I didn’t know I needed. It’s as much about the fear of love—self-love, queer love, love of homeland—as it is a messy embrace of longing. It serves as a profound reminder that you can’t explore your own desires without also exploring your sense of who you are, and that if you manage to do so, you can provide yourself with antidotes to shame and isolation. My favorite line: “Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”
Amanda, Finance & Operations Director
My daughter Aria was gifted a book (before she was born) called Mama, Do You Love Me? by Barbara M. Joosse, illustrated by Barbara Lavallee. It is such a sweet and timeless story about the unconditional love of a mother for her daughter with beautiful watercolor illustrations. It is a well-loved and well-worn favorite on her shelf.
Bre’Anna, WITS Coordinator
I love, love, LOVE the book All About Love by bell hooks. Normally, when I let people borrow books, I give them whatever copy I have on hand. With this book, though, I’ve bought a second copy for people to borrow, just so I can keep my copy on my bookshelf.
All About Love was a great, eye-opening experience in that there is an entire contemplation on how self-love is a necessary pre-cursor to the act of love. Yes, we all know that, but hooks really asks us to be mindful of how we choose to love, and why we choose to love. She discusses what’s at risk if we don’t, and what we can achieve and encounter if we do.
My favorite quote:
To return to love, to get the love we always wanted but never had, to have the love we want but are not prepared to give, we seek romantic relationships. We believe these relationships, more than any other, will rescue and redeem us. True love does have the power to redeem but only if we are ready for redemption. Love saves us only if we want to be saved.
And also: “Do not expect to receive the love from someone else you do not give yourself.”
Christina, Patron Services Manager
One of my favorite love stories is the English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. The writing alone made me swoon—I found it breathtaking and heartbreakingly beautiful. This tale is set in an isolated Italian villa in the aftermath of war, although danger continues to lurk in the form of buried bombs. Mystery, intrigue, war, and a sense of place are strong elements of the book. However, it is the two love affairs that tugged at my heart—one passionate, forbidden, and doomed, re-lived in the mind of a mysterious dying burn victim. The other quietly and gently develops between the grief-stricken nurse Hanna and Kip the bomb disposal expert, in the still of the night, under the stars, reading Kipling out loud; they gently and quietly open their damaged hearts to love. Such unsettling beauty; I think it is time for a re-read!
Letitia, Marketing Coordinator
When I read The Light of the Word by Elizabeth Alexander, I fell in love with this book about love and loss. This memoir written by a poet is an elegiac account of the love of her life, her husband, and their great love, along with the loss when he dies just after his 50th birthday. Alexander’s relationship with her husband shines through her memories and musings—and the title comes from a poem by Derek Walcott: “O Beauty, you are the light of the world!”—captures their love for each other perfectly. Yes, this book will make you cry, but it will also make you appreciate the love in your life.
Piper, WITS Program Associate
The book I recommend: Pleasure Activism by adrienne maree brown. This book reaffirms everything I have suspected about love, self, heteronormative patriarchy (though I never had the words for it) for most of my life, but pushes my understanding of the word “love” to new iterations and explorations to counteract. It maintains curiosity for pleasure, for honesty, for communities of care and love. She writes, “How have we been loving? Defining love my obligation… framing love as a product we give each other… prioritizing romantic love over self, comrade, and friend love… This kind of love is not sufficient, even if it is the greatest love of our lives. The kind of love that we will be forced to celebrate or escape on Valentine’s Day is too small.”
It felt right to return to this book this year, especially, because of how I’ve been slowing down and paying more attention to my own breath and pulse, and how I have been missing community and care and shows of love and solidarity in real and tangible ways. She writes, “We’re all going to die if we keep loving this way, die from isolation, from loneliness, depression, abandoning each other to oppression, from lack of touch, from forgetting we are precious.” The book looks at pleasure and self pleasure as an act of political resistance, as strategy for survival, as healing. The political is never disentangled from the personal, and love at its core is anti-performative, abundant, and roots-based.
Rebecca, SAL Associate Director
I remember reading “Touch Me” by Stanley Kunitz in my early 20s and being so moved by his looking back at his younger self. As a young self, I could see that I might someday feel the same way. Even then I was nostalgic for the era I was living through; I was preemptively nostalgic, perhaps experiencing what, in Portuguese, they call “saudade.” “What makes the engine go?” he asks? “Desire, desire, desire.” The pistons turn over the word. Listen to Kunitz read the poem here.
Ruth, SAL Executive Director
I re-read Wild by Cheryl Strayed this summer and was struck by how much I love that book, and how at the heart, it is a book about learning how to metabolize grief, love yourself, and discover your authentic place in the world. To me, there is no greater love story than that.
Sarah, Event & Corporate Giving Manager
Quiero hacer contigo lo que la primavera hace con los cerezos.
I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry blossoms.
A favorite literary travel experience was walking through Pablo Neruda’s homes La Sebastiani and Isla Negra in Chile with the man who would become my husband. I’m totally infatuated with the love story of Pablo and Matilde. And truly, I think this might be the sexiest line I’ve ever come across in poetry. And William and Paula are another amazing love story in poetry. It is all the more exquisite how he contemplates that he could have missed this beautiful moment, that “I might have stood in orchards forever without… tasting in your mouth the sun in the apricots.”
One year for Valentine’s Day, I gave my husband a broadside from Copper Canyon Press of W.S. Merwin’s poem “West Wall.”