Everyone always rushes off to buy flowers, elaborate chocolate boxes, or sparkly jewelry, but why not say “I love you” with a book? In presenting your valentine with something good to read, you’ll avoid dreaded clichéd territory, as well as the line at your local florist.
Personally, if forced to choose between a bunch of roses and, say, Junot Diaz’s next [unpublished, perhaps as yet unwritten] novel, I’d go with the Díaz. Were it between the newly published complete illustrated and annotated Letters of Van Gogh and a bottle of vintage Krug, I might well take the Van Gogh.
Reading is inherently a solitary endeavor, but books make some of the most romantic gifts, and time spent with a loved one curled up with good books can be every bit as heart-warming as linguini with cockles at a fancy Italian restaurant. Reading aloud together—poetry or short stories work well—or, if that’s embarrassing, reading two copies of the same book can also heighten the romance. Of course, a literary romance can equally bring substitute solace to the untethered heart.
Here are our picks for Valentine’s Day reads.
For the alluring stranger you’ve noticed at a coffee shop:
Sexually, I’m More of a Switzerland, a collection of personal ads compiled from the London Review of Books by David Rose, might fit the bill. The compilation reveals the charming, often witty hearts of the lonely: "English lecturer, 44. Modeling himself on The Fonz in an entirely non-ironic way since 1979."
For the cute neighbor you met last summer in the laundry room:
My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro, edited by Jeffrey Eugenides, offers 26 suitably knowing, bittersweet love stories to dip into—from Faulkner’s macabre “A Rose for Emily,” to Lorrie Moore’s “How to Be the Other Woman,” to David Bezmozgis’ “Natasha,” about a Toronto teenager who falls for his uncle’s Russian stepdaughter. A collection of stories seems an appropriate gift for a relatively short-term relationship—tucking into it doesn’t require an enormous time commitment.
For the girl you want to whisk off to Paris:
Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado follows the romantic escapades of an American girl in Paris in the late 1950s. A friend of mine has made a habit of giving a copy of this book to girls he is fond of—and to date it has always worked like a charm. Of course, anything published by the New York Review of Books will impress, but Dundy’s pre- Bridget Jones escapade avoids the pitfall of your seeming too dry.
For your stalwart long-term partner:
Turn to Jane Austen. Marriage is the happy-ending outcome of all Austen tomes, including Pride and Prejudice and Emma, which are also wonderfully wry. On a turn of the 19th-century note, steer well clear of Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady and Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, which despite their endearing romantic heroines, end tragically.
For the passionate type you got together with skiing over New Year’s:
Only romantic poetry will do. At this budding stage of your relationship, cultivate the coup de foudre with Keats and Shelley, as well as Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Blake. Don’t overlook contemporary romantic poets keeping the tradition alive and well. Timothy Donnelly’s Twenty-Seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit and Saskia Hamilton’s Divide These fulfill Wordsworth’s definition of good poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”
For your engagement valentine:
If you’ve got the ring picked out and it’s only a matter of days… hours… minutes… before you summon the nerve to pop the question, present your sweetheart with a copy of Restoring a House in the City by Ingrid Abromovitch. The book features 21 urban restorations, including Julianne Moore’s West Village stunner, that might provide essential decorating and renovation inspiration when you set up house. It’s not a love story per se, but if you’re planning on keeping the ring in the box until after Valentine’s Day, this might drop just a vague enough a hint to your fiancé(e)-to-be.
For your trans-Atlantic Oxbridge heartthrob:
Pick up a copy of one of the impressive collections of letters Farrar, Straus & Giroux has recently put out. Words in Air, the complete correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell reveals the absorbing, novel-like correspondence between the affectionate friends. Letters of Ted Hughes, selected and edited by Christopher Reid, includes Hughes and Sylvia Plath’s correspondence, as well as letters to trusted friends revealing his feelings about her. Equally disturbing, but nonetheless fascinating, The Letters of TS Eliot, reveals Eliot’s fraught relationship with his wife Vivienne.
It’s just you and the cat:
Consider Us: Americans Talk About Love. This new collection of 44 first-person accounts of love affairs, successful and failed, edited by John Bowe, is a refreshing antidote to Elizabeth Gilbert’s smugger Committed. As Bowe, a 42-year-old bachelor, recently told The New York Times, “You know that idea that true love conquers all?... It can conquer a hell of a lot, but it can’t conquer everything.” Unlike Gilbert, who marries the Brazilian gem trader she met in Bali, Bowe ultimately breaks up with the woman he falls for on the Pacific island of Saipan.
For the person you nearly tackled for the last Savoy cabbage at the farmer’s market:
The Art of Eating, by MFK Fisher, is sure to charm. This heady collection of Fisher’s astute, timeless musings on food is scattered with enticing recipes. As Fisher wrote: "There is communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk. And that is my answer, when people ask me: Why do you write about hunger, and not wars or love?"
For the couple with wanderlust:
What could be more romantic than giving your valentine a guidebook with airline tickets for two tucked inside, the hotel already booked? The Companion Guide to Venice, for example, doesn’t bother with logistics: shopping, accommodation, or restaurants. Instead, Hugh Honour’s elegant prose guides you through a succession of walks, allowing you to meander in the footsteps of Henry James and Proust, both of whose insights are referenced by the author.
Johanna Smith is a MFA student in creative writing at Columbia University. She writes for newyorker.com and was previously the Living section editor of the Huffington Post.