Can Books Teach Us How To Love?

When we decried self-help books, many of you protested that the genre wasn't all bad. Writer Liesl Schillinger agrees — she and Christina Nehring, author of A Vindication of Love, believe you can get better at romance by reading.

Nehring's book is not self-help — it's "an incitement to unruliness, a cry to battle." According to a review in the Wall Street Journal, its thesis is that feminism and the modern-day focus on "healthy" relationships have taken all the danger and grandeur out of love. She writes that, for smart women, love is "a public relations gaffe, a death blow to one's credibility as a thinker" — thus they "must either renounce romantic love altogether or box it into a space so small in her life that it attracts no attention." Her solution to this supposed neutering of women's lives is to return to a more tragic idea of love. She says,

With our cult of success we have all but obliterated the memory that in pain lies grandeur. If the soul is a garden, as Voltaire once suggested, a complete soul will never be spared bitter fruit. For every sweet plum there will be a toxic berry. For every cluster of roses there will be a tangle of thorns.

I doubt that many modern women — especially those who have been through a breakup — have compartmentalized their love lives so successfully that they've forgotten that love includes pain. And really, human beings, even (especially?) smart ones, behave irrationally enough — we don't need a book to tell us to be "unruly." It is true that women often get more criticism for romantic indiscretions than men do, but doesn't that mean we should change our attitudes toward women, not towards love?

Liesl Schillinger seems to think we can change both — or at least, change our attitudes about ourselves and how we love. A longtime self-help book naysayer, she changed her mind when, after her divorce, she read a 1928 book called The Technique of the Love Affair. One of the book's tips: "It is desirable for the happiness and well-being of a woman that she should be frequently, or at any rate constantly, pursued." Another: "We dare not give rein to our generosity, for men, like children, soon tire of what is soon obtained." Once converted, she turned to self-help books to learn about "certain kinds of boyfriends I was susceptible to," "women who sabotage their own romantic chances," and the fact that "to haul yourself out of the limbic rut of a lost love, you must forge new neural paths with new people."

Schillinger's essay is smart — she acknowledges that while some self-help books are worthless, others can help us recognize patterns we didn't even know we were repeating. On Monday I argued that the only self-help book anybody needs is How To Figure Out What's Exactly Right For Your Unique, Individual Life, And Then Do That, but I'm willing to believe that people make the same kinds of mistakes in their lives, and that a self-help book can sometimes provide a much-needed kick in the pants.

That said, I'm troubled by the idea of a book delivering "strategies" for love. Nehring would say that this is sterile and dull, and that's part of the problem. But a bigger part is the self-help book canard that people should change themselves if their relationships aren't working out. If a book helps someone seek out a different kind of partner, or recognize an unfulfilling relationship, that's all to the good. But what about books that tell women to create a new persona, one that "reins in generosity" and demands to be "pursued"? This is disturbing because it's unnatural, but also because it presumes that a woman's highest goal is to hook a man, not to be with someone who appreciates her authentic self.

Schillinger says that, early in her life, she "assumed that any coping strategies I might need as I blundered through life could be found in the novels that I devoured." "In Jane Eyre," she continues, "I saw that a bookish loner who was ostracized by coddled children could educate herself into a richer life than her blinkered peers imagined." Most novels are very far from psychologically helpful — it's not their purpose. But I read Jane Eyre as a teenager too, and it contains a passage I immediately memorized and repeat to myself more often than any piece of advice I have ever received:

I have an inward treasure, born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld; or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.

I think Jane is talking about her intellect here, but her "inward treasure" could be interpreted just as easily as the soul — or the clit, for that matter. The point is, this one sentence is a powerful expression of self-love and self-reliance — qualities that self-help books, despite their name, don't always encourage.

More Amour [Wall Street Journal]
Hooked On Self-Help Books Against Her Will [CNN]