Essays in Love

2006-06-18

in Books and literature

As a study of human relationships, Alain de Botton’s Essays in Love is insightful, as well as concise in a sense reminiscent of Milan Kundera’s earlier work. Like love itself, it can easily become over-indulgent in the examination of minutiae, but – like love itself – it manages to be charming on the whole, in spite of that.

de Botton’s book documents the falling in love, experience in love, and ultimate betrayal and downfall of what might be considered your classic contemporary western romantic couple. Adult working people, living in London, and interacting against the backdrop of career and city and family in all the familiar ways. (How fitting that the cover shows a young woman in red, reading in the aisle of a room closely resembling the Oxford Social Sciences Library.) What makes the book remarkable is when the narrator expresses an idea that you are sure has been fluttering about in your own mind for years, but which you never quite had the language to pin to a cork board with such definiteness and precision.

The greatest flaw of the book is the way in which the narrator can become hopelessly pedantic and intellectually Narcissistic (especially when making forays into introductory-level philosophy and psychology). Of course, that’s largely a reflection of how the thoughts about love of those in love will always be of limited interest to others – where they confirm what we believe or have experienced, they seem to spark and crackle with the energy of our own passions. When they are tied up in the contemplation of things peripheral to us, they cannot sustain our interest. Writing about love, much like love itself, is a selfish thing.

Written in the form of twenty-four ordered lists – each a succession of numbered paragraphs – the book gives the general sense that it was written in little snatches of notebook examination of recent events. While it does tell a story, it’s more like a study of love based upon a single case study, with the underlying hope of producing generalizable conclusions. Whenever the reader discovers one, there is a sense of having learned, or at least identified, something important and useful. The frequency of such insights makes the book worthwhile reading, though the author is self-referentially critical of them:

Love taught the analytic mind a certain humility, the lesson that however hard it struggled to reach immobile certainties (numbering its conclusions and embedding them in neat series) analysis could never be anything but flawed – and therefore never stray far from the ironic.

The corresponding danger inherent to using a story to provoke awareness of patterns is the inescapable sense that much of what is being read is a cliché. Of course, love is rarely original – though it often feels that way at the time. The book leaves you with a certain sense that love is a fairly well-defined mechanism by which human beings can achieve things that are necessary but generally impossible to find as an individual; to return to an old metaphor of mine, it provides essential amino acids that cannot be synthesized, an idea that is generally too unromantic to maintain while meeting with success.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan June 18, 2006 at 7:47 pm

The book does contain one cliché that I increasingly consider inexcusable: the scene where the melancholic protagonist tries to commit suicide with pills, only to discover that they are vitamin C. It’s so laughably implausible (and inexplicably common in fiction) that it makes the writer seem far less accomplished for falling back upon it. If there is a single chemical compound in pill form that almost everybody can identify by taste, it is vitamin C.

Editors of novels, take note!

Antonia June 20, 2006 at 1:11 pm

“What makes the book remarkable is when the narrator expresses an idea that you are sure has been fluttering about in your own mind for years, but which you never quite had the language to pin to a cork board with such definiteness and precision.”
Many of the best books do this; the remainder unfold fascinating connections or ideas which never crossed your mind.

Milan June 20, 2006 at 1:23 pm

Antonia,

The tendency of excellent books to thrust your own thinking ahead and forward is perhaps most notable in popular books on technical subjects, for instance Green’s “The Elegant Universe.” As a concise and accessible explanation of relativity and quantum mechanics, I think it is unparalleled, and you feel like a genius for understanding what is being said.

Milan January 6, 2007 at 3:10 pm

I had forgotten who recommended this book to me but, while going through an old document, I discovered that it was Alison Benjamin.

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