Based on the number of women populating the pedicure chairs at the salon yesterday, summer has arrived for most of us, even if the calendar doesn’t declare it official until late next month. Colorful toes peek out of sandals, peonies bloom out in frothy bursts, and otherwise sun-lethargic cats shed fur like mad. One of the best things about these long, bright days for a bibliophile like me: time for summer reading.
It seems even those who don’t read much other times of year dive into books while on the beach, or on the plane they take to get there. My own summer reading is a pretty mixed bag: memoirs, literary novels, nature writing, cheesy mysteries. Should you be searching for some books to add to your summer booklist, here are my top five picks of books for lovers.
1. The Five Love Languages, by Gary Chapman (1992). Chapman’s guide to creating lasting love first came out in 1992 and has since been updated. The original text (pictured here) was plenty revolutionary. His basic premise: falling in love is easy, but staying in love is a challenge. Chapman categorizes common forms of expressing love into five “languages”– words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of services, and physical touch—and hypothesizes that each of us “speaks” one or two of these languages most fluently, the others less so. To feel loved, you must speak one another’s love languages; if that language doesn’t come naturally to you, you can learn it. Though the metaphor of “keeping the love tank full” sounds a tad hokey, the concept is simple and concrete. Instead of getting stuck in vague ideals of “more romance” or “more passion,” make lists of specific loving actions, and do them. If your partner experiences love through words of affirmation, sending sweet texts and cards with loving words will help “fill his tank”; if acts of service are her language, taking the car for a needed oil change will make her feel loved. Chapman is Christian, but the love languages do not follow or require any particular belief system. This book helped me understand love as a choice, a practice, something you do.
My fiancé Steve and I had both individually encountered Chapman’s work before we met, and it was reassuring not only to be able to tap into and speak one another’s love language, but also to speak the language of “love languages.” Having that shared vocabulary makes it easy to talk about what we need from one another in straightforward, accessible terms.
2. Attitudes of Gratitude in Love, by M.J. Ryan (2002). M.J. Ryan is the author of several Attitudes of Gratitude books. In this one, she notes that feeling and expressing gratitude is the “key to living love.” She details attitudes and actions: ways to cultivate an attitude of gratitude in your love relationships, and concrete, deliberate ways of practicing or expressing that gratitude. For example, one of the “attitudes” chapters, “It’s Right to Notice What’s Right,” urges the reader to cultivate the art of paying as much attention to the good elements of a relationship as to the trouble spots. The practice chapters detail specific and purposeful actions you can take, such as keeping a mental (or physical) tally for a few days of how often you say “please” or “thank you” to your partner, and adjusting your language accordingly.
The chapters within each section are brief, ranging from a single paragraph to just a few pages long. In their clarity and brevity, they can work almost as daily meditations, simple reminders that there is much to be grateful for, and much to be gained in remembering that.
3. He’s Just Not That Into You, by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo (2004). I wish this book had come out when I was 25 instead of 35, and I wish I’d read it when I was 35 instead of waiting until I was 40. I might have saved myself a lot of needless agonizing and anguishing. It’s a must-read for all the amazing single women who are looking for love and puzzle themselves silly over the behavior of some men (it’s directed to women, though similarly frustrated men might find insights, too). Behrendt and Tuccillo don’t pull any punches: if a man is making excuses or behaving in ways that are causing you to call your girlfriends up and say, “What does this mean?” you’re wasting your time. He’s probably just not that into you. You should cut him loose and look elsewhere for the love you deserve.
I laughed and cried, with recognition and relief, when I first read this book. “He’s just not that into you if he’s not calling you…not having sex with you…is breaking up with you.” Yes, I’d dated that guy. And that one. That one, too. It wasn’t just me experiencing these wacky situations! Go out with someone for a few weeks, you’re having a great time together, and then, boom, he disappears without a word? Check. Go out with a man for over a year for dinner, museum, hiking dates; have sex; spend holidays and birthdays together; but he refuses to call you his girlfriend? Check. What was most empowering was how the book helped me recognize my own self-defeating habits. I won’t say I broke them immediately, but the book became a brick in the wall of confidence I needed to build to decide, ultimately, the authors were right: I deserved better. Next.
4. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, by Cheryl Strayed (2012). This book by Strayed (who is better known for her memoir Wild) is right at the top of my “if everyone would read this book, we’d live in a better world” list. Composed of a collection of essays Strayed wrote in her guise as the advice columnist Dear Sugar for TheRumpus.net, the book includes the original letters she received and her incredible responses. Steve Almond says it best in his introduction: Strayed “understands that attention is the first and final act of love,” and her essays in this collection “do the essential work of literary art: they make us more human than we were before.” I was stilled in my seat when Strayed called up the image of negative space in art to counsel a young woman navigating the non-monogamous dating scene; I was moved to wander the house in restless contemplation by the challenge she issued to “The Lusty Broad” who couldn’t decide whether to stay or go. I underlined, I paused, I considered, I read again.
This book played a strange and wonderful role in my own life: I gave it to a man I was dating as a Christmas gift, and spurred by the hard truth he saw in one of the essays, he broke things off with me. At first I was pissed—the gift that keeps on giving, right? Ultimately, it was. Strayed’s words had cracked him, us, open in the best possible way. The end of that relationship eventually created the space for another, with my now-fiancé Steve.
5. My last summer reading recommendation is both more personal and more abstract than any of the others: choose a book about a topic of mutual interest that will promote good conversation about the world or something in it, and read it with your partner. You might designate a “reading night” each week, or read as part of a regular night-time ritual. Take turns reading aloud to one another, or sit side by side and each read your own copy. Avoid subjects you’re likely to debate fiercely (not so good for sweet dreams at bedtime) but look for something that will give you fodder for rich discussion about things beyond your relationship, the house, the kids, etc.
For example, Steve and I started an intriguing book, Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run (2009), about ultra-marathon running and Mexico’s Tarahumara Indian tribe, who run hundreds of miles sans injuries or rest. We’ve trained together for several (much more modest) 5Ks and 10Ks, and we both have enjoyed not only the insights into running, but also the book’s blend of storytelling and science. Other good candidates for this kind of reading experience: Malcolm Gladwell , Michael Pollan, Anne Lamott.
Life’s too short not to read good books. Love well and read long!