I love Valentine’s Day. I really do. It’s some sort of weird disorder, or maybe just a testament to the successful rhetoric of greeting card companies. But in any case, it’s nice to think that once a year you can either do something self-consciously hokey (or, you know, break out the ol’ love swing) with your significant other, or cry yourself to sleep watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and listening to Coldplay.
Regardless of the state of your heart this February 14, here are some books to read to make sure that your brain is working:
Got a little someone special in your life? Try Lolita. It’s not exactly the most un-horrifying experience in the history of modern literature, but it sure makes you feel normal by comparison.
Nobokov’s unbelievably sinister portrayal of Humbert Humbert takes us through the psychology of a pedophile and leaves us wondering, well, how he thought up all of this stuff. The salacious content of the novel is one thing…and there are arguments on both sides about whether it is pornographic. I come down on the side that says: this is a novel that pushes the limits of narrator-reliability. Its unrelenting portrayal of psychosis is absolutely unique.
Whether you’re trying to work through the psychodynamics of your favorite fetish or in the market for a new one, boy has Freud written the book for you! In his essential work, the good doctor lays out the foundation for some of his most famous ideas. What made The Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality such a scandal at the time was its bold overthrow of just about everything that psychiatrists and sociologists were saying about sex.
Freud aims to strip moral judgment from “the perversions,” and uses them to try and determine just what we mean when we talk about “normal sexual behavior.” So go ahead and enjoy that leather spiked thong! It’s just object-cathexis!
Girls! Trying to figure out what to buy Dad for V-Day? Or, looking to send the message to that special boyfriend that he’s just your father with a different haircut? Well, then it’s got to be Ariel. Give that big lovable brute in your life a dose of what he really deserves, and quit living in that shoe of yours!
Published in 1965, two years after her suicide, reading Plath’s poems in one sitting is a bit like digging into a scab until you need stitches! Nothing says “I love you” like “But they pulled me out of the sack / And they stuck me together with glue. / And then I knew what to do. / I made a model of you, / A man in black with a Meinkampf look. Say “I do!” to Sylvia!
Last, give the gift that truly does keep on giving: meaning. Kafka’s In the Penal Colony helps us all understand when signification is conveyed through bodily feeling, and no longer just language! There can be no more beautiful message to share with your loved one on Valentine’s Day than the idea that he or she makes you feel something deeply unintelligible and incommunicable. Your love is beyond the ability of language to communicate!
Tell them exactly that by sharing Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, wherein a deranged commandant of a prison tortures condemned inmates in a machine contrived to carve nonsensical scripts into their backs until they perish from blood loss after twelve hours! It’s the ultimate expression of the inability of language to express!
[Coda: For real picks–books that try to portray love in all of its mundane and satisfying ordinary give-and-take and heartache/break–try Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, Jonathan Lethem’s As she Climbed Across the Table, Lydia Davis’s Collected Fiction (or if you’re someone who likes to really drag out awkwardness and pain: The End of the Story)]