So Many Kinds of Love: A Reading List

Connection is biologically hardwired. It is fundamental to our survival as a species—if not mammalian babies would surely be abandoned. When you strip away connection a baby is just a screaming mass of needs and demands with nothing to give and everything to take. But biologically, we are wired to love and care for our offspring—to take the long view—and to attend lovingly to that tiny human until it passes safely through its most powerfully needy phase into more subtle and nuanced needy phases.

This survival necessity provides a clear biological explanation for the purpose of connection, but the roots of connection are deeper still. Connection does far more than just grease the skids on the baby-propagating machine. It is, for most of us, what gives meaning to our lives, well beyond those first years when our survival is most obviously tied to another human.

There are so many kinds of love that we can experience in a lifetime. The German language alone has thirty distinct words for different kinds of kisses—and kissing is just one expression of those many kinds of love. It would be impossible to catalogue all of the kinds of love that exist in this world, but what follows below is reading list that speaks to some of the most prominent categories of this most important part of the human experience—of the connective tissue that ultimately gives meaning to our brief lives.

  1.  The life-giving love of authentic friendship. Friendship is remarkable because it is so voluntary. No DNA chains attached. Just two people who connect at a soul level—making the unbearable more bearable and the light all the brighter. Nobody captures this kind of love more aptly or more beautifully than Truman Capote in A Christmas Memory, where he chronicles the friendship between an old woman, Ms. Sook, and a young boy, Buddy.
  2. The devoted love of a pet. Human animals can be so incredibly cruel, and sometimes it is the love that crosses the species barrier that is the most healing balm. It is not an accident (I think) that Dog and God are anagrams, for I have met far more dogs than humans who dwell in the realm of sainthood. The devoted, undeserved, unfailing love of a beloved pet is captured in Eleanor Atkin's Greyfriar’s Bobby, which tells the true story of Bobby, a devoted Skye terrier, who sleeps for years on his master’s grave—an old shepherd who would have died alone, if not for the company of Bobby.
  3. The dedicated love of long-time partnership. This audacious kind of love aspires to much, and is perhaps only truly experienced when the aspirations are crushed and both people choose to remain anyways, giving time for something greater than the first blush of new love to take root. Two books speak powerfully to the evolution that occurs in long-term partnership. Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea describes the three marriages that exist within a long single marriage—that each iteration has its time and place, and that in the end all are just right and beautiful. And Alain De Botton’s The Course of Love: A Novel which, similarly arrives at the conclusion that people are only ready to be married after they’ve "enrolled in the curriculum" for years; when they have arrived—not to the promise land—but rather to a delight in the reality of what it means to live a life intimately with another.
  4. The fierce and eternal love of family. Mary Karr, a memoirist, once said “A dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it.” This sentiment gets at the complexity of a love that is wrapped up and weighed down by chains of DNA. Sometimes the dysfunction is too much, and the only way to save your own life is to initiate the painful process of breaking away from the chains, but for those of us who are lucky, the chains don’t really feel like chains at all—but rather like the benevolent tether that keeps us moored in this wild, fast spinning world. For this reason, Jeannette Wall’s memoir, The Glass Castle is especially striking. The family life she describes is in many obvious ways deeply dysfunctional, but what pulses louder and clearer than the dysfunction is the fierce and eternal love that exists within the family. It is a shining example of what it means to love someone even while you hate them, and to know that the circumstances of a life can be restrictive in a multitude of ways, but that those circumstances cannot constrict the boundless edges of love.
  5. The hard-won love of reality. For many this is the hardest love to achieve, because it doesn’t respond to roses or Milk Bones or apologies. It requires the laying down of fantasies about how life should or could be, and accepting life as it is, in this moment, without excessive wailing or head banging—without despairing defeat. Byron Katie’s Loving What Is offers a roadmap and philosophical underpinning to arriving at this kind of elusive, hard-won love.

And perhaps the book that sums up the messy, hard to define, giant concept of love best comes from Margery William’s children’s story, The Velveteen Rabbit. In this story the little stuffed rabbit and the stiff Skin Horse are discussing what it means to be real. And this notion—of realness—is by necessity at the heart of true love. 

“Real isn't how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit. 

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn't happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.”