The Editor of Modern Love on the Books That Taught Him About Love
From Brain Chemistry, to Sexual Impulses, to Tearjerkers
As editor of the “Modern Love” column at The New York Times, where I have read perhaps 100,000 essays about relationships over the past 15 years, I sometimes fall into the lazy trap of thinking I can’t possibly learn anything new about love. Which is ridiculous. Not to mention dangerous. One of the best things about love, I often say, is how impossible it is to master. These five favorites delve into love’s complexity in a way that’s fresh, wise and bracing—the kind of books that remind you that don’t even know what you didn’t know until you read them.
Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love by Helen Fisher
We are so eager to think about love and romance as being magical and fated that we often forget how chemical and biological attraction can be. If you want to know what’s really happening when we fall in love—or how we keep it, or lose it—you’ll need to read this book. You’ll find out, for example, how when we fall in love, the blood flow actually changes in our brains. And other places too, of course!
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
My all-time favorite novel charts the demise of a marriage in such meticulous and devastating detail that it has stayed in my thoughts for the past 25 years. It’s also a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, but I can’t watch it for fear of tainting my cherished memories of the book. It’s that good. (Also read Yates’s collection of stories, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, which will break your heart at least eleven times.)
Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha
I think about Sex at Dawn nearly every time a man behaves badly (or criminally) in the sexual arena, which is basically (let’s face it) just about every minute of every day. And that’s partly the point of the book: We are wired through evolution to be deeply sexual creatures, but engaging in constant sexual activity isn’t workable, obviously, in society as it now exists. It’s a fascinating thesis, compellingly explained.
Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
Certain men like to explain things to women. Certain men also like to explain things to other men. Solnit’s razor-sharp collection of essays calls out this eternal dynamic (and plenty of other eternal dynamics of inequality) in a way that left me feeling both shaken and energized.
The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth about Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage by Cathi Hanauer
Okay, this is my wife’s book, but to leave it off a list of books that changed my ideas about relationships would be a crime. After all, it was the publication of The Bitch in the House, with its 26 blunt, eloquent essays about relationships (especially the challenges of contemporary marriage), that led The New York Times to create the “Modern Love” column. In helping her with this project, I was fully immersed in a woman’s point of view in relationships for the first time, and it was life-changing.
Modern Love, Revised and Updated ed. by Daniel Jones will be available from Broadway Books. Featured with the permission of the publisher, Broadway Books. Copyright © by Daniel Jones.