Daniel Jones on Modern Love

“The Sea of Love may sound sexy and appealing…but in reality it’s a dark and scary place – deep, cold, impenetrable, and populated by billions of freakish creatures lurking in the depths with their gnashing teeth and electrified appendages…”

 

Love Illuminated by Daniel Jones (2014, William Morrow)

1. INTRODUCTION

Since 2004, Daniel Jones (@danjonesnyt), a writer based in Northampton, Massachusetts, has been editing the “Modern Love” column in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times. Jones’ job is to read deeply personal essays that explore the joys and tribulations of romantic love – then select, polish and publish the most memorable of the lot. Over the years, he claims, about 50,000 tales have crossed his desk. While navigating the muck and majesty of love, he has identified certain recurrent trends and concerns and has emerged with a little education on the subject which he’d like to share with the world. That being said, he does not consider himself some kind of guru on a mountaintop dispensing sage advice to the lovelorn. He issues a disclaimer right on the first page when he humbly confesses that he is “not an esteemed doctor or a lauded academic but a lowly newspaper editor”. All this time, he hasn’t really been mastering love but marinating in it – like pickle in vinegar. His book Love Illuminated: Exploring Life’s Most Mystifying Subject (with the Help of 50,000 Strangers) is, therefore, more about questions and curiosity than about answers and certainty. We have tried to “decode” love by subjecting it to every form of enquiry, experimentation and algorithm conceivable but – Jones asks and wants us to ponder – do we understand it any better than Shakespeare did nearly five hundred years ago?

2. STRUCTURE AND SALIENT POINTS

Drawing from the secrets he has been privy to, Jones traces love through ten phases and aspects of human relationships. And with self-deprecating humour, provides anecdotes from his own life. (He is married to the writer Cathi Hanauer, whom he ‘accidently’ met in Tucson, Arizona while studying for an MFA in Creative Writing).

He starts with (i) Pursuit, in which he distinguishes between two primary methods people adopt when looking for love, namely, “a manic control freakiness” and “a lazy-ass belief in fate”. Then he moves on to (ii) Destiny, wherein he describes the surprising and (often positive ways) in which people end up acting when certain that they are “meant to be” with a particular individual. How can we admit our weaknesses and insecurities without sabotaging our relationship? – he enquires in (iii) Vulnerability, with a particular focus on the all-physical-no-emotional hookup culture. The next chapter, (iv) Connection, examines how communication devices and social media are affecting our relationships, with a particular focus on the all-emotional-no-physical online-only relationship. To begin a relationship with any prospective partner we must have a minimum level of faith in them but how can we know we won’t be victims of con? [(v) Trust].

How do people maintain individuality in marriage, create fairer family names, devise a more equitable division of labour between spouses? [(vi) Practicality]. In (vii) Monotony, Jones discusses a ubiquitous and important problem – the loss of passion in marriage in mid-life (which may not necessarily equate to a loss of love). Next [(viii) Infidelity], we read about the behaviours that qualify as infidelity (this differs from couple to couple), the rationalisations that betrayers provide and the ways in which the betrayed cope with heartbreak. Then comes the most challenging part – the confrontation with your partner’s life-threatening problem [(ix) Loyalty]. How do you know what’s best and what’s right in such a situation? How much can you give without losing yourself? Finally, in (x) Wisdom, Jones questions if we consider love primarily a feeling or a choice and how do we separate mere lust from authentic love.

He concludes with a rather likable note, envisioning love in creature form – an alien like Steven Spielberg’s E.T. – who must be captured and dissected and, as a consequence, ends up a cold carcass when interfered with too much. Jones is not against the pursuit of scientific knowledge but he suggests that we not prod and poke this phenomenon arrogantly and incessantly. Now and then, we must simply step back in humility, accept the complexity and marvel at the mystery that is love – which helps us to “be good”.

3. WHAT I APPRECIATED/WHY YOU MAY WANT TO READ THIS BOOK

Three main things. First, Love Illuminated is full of real stories of real people – belonging to different creeds, temperaments, cultural backgrounds and sexual orientations; it examines love in a very concrete way. Second, it is a very balanced book, taking into account failure and cowardice along with heroic feats of devotion and generosity. Thirdly, because, although the stories recounted in this book are largely derived from contemporary America, many of the issues they raise have a timeless and universal quality to them.

4. DEFICIENCIES, AMBIGUITIES AND OTHER PROBLEMS

Since this book is exploratory it nature, it gives a lot of information about “what people are busy doing these days” but it does not always perform an excellent job of evaluating those actions. This might confuse some readers and make them wonder whether the author is merely describing or endorsing the strategies he is talking about. Jones too casually (and not always very critically) mentions a lot of these “increasingly prevalent practices” and fails to note that some of them may still not be very morally palatable to a large number of people (example, in ‘Vulnerability’, this practice of “Sending Dick Pix”).

I also feel that he since takes up an extremely huge topic, he could have added another layer of depth to his discussion by tapping into the vast philosophical (just think Plato) and theological (take C. S. Lewis, for instance) literature on love available in the Western intellectual tradition (or for that matter any equivalent Eastern material). The great minds of the past can always shed light on our human condition no matter how evolved and advanced we think we have become with our values and our deeds.

5. CONCLUDING REMARKS

Overall, the book is enlightening, enjoyable – and highly readable. I rate it 8.5/10.

 

Featured Image Credit: Pixabay

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Preview Love Illuminated: Exploring Life’s Most Mystifying Subject (with the Help of 50,000 Strangers) by Daniel Jones.

 

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10 thoughts on “Daniel Jones on Modern Love

    1. The column is indeed interesting. My next post will be on the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari’s book ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’.

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      1. Ah yes! I leafed that recently in the bookshop. It looks very promising. I look forward to your post. It’s in a different vein, but it put me in mind of Theodore Zeldin’s An Intimate History of Humanity, which is probably the most beautiful work of non-fiction I’ve ever read.

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  1. I love your writing style in this post. The book review is very thorough, and gives me a good background into whether I would like to read it.

    From your evaluation, I would probably steer away from thus book since it does not go into the theological aspect of love. Being a Christian, I find true love in Christ. Leaving him out of the equation just doesn’t make sense to me.

    Also. Thanks for visiting my blog. I hope you come again!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by 🙂 I am a Christian myself but one who loves engaging with secular culture critically but lovingly. Although this is not meant to be a religious take on love (it is for a wide audience), it does raise questions that could be useful for theological discussions and a life of faith. I think the “seeds of Truth” are everywhere. We should just be willing and open to finding them.

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