How to Heal a Broken Heart With Books (or, OK, Maybe Indulge It a Little Bit)
I know I've been too sensitive my whole life — I know this because people who love me will often remind me in the spirit of being kind, helpful even. The point is I have some experience in getting my heart damaged. But I also have experience in how to fix it.
The best balm for heartache is friends who will let you tell them the same story again and again until you exhaust yourself. And wine. And writing vitriolic poems that shouldn’t be seen by anyone for a while. (That last part might just be me, but feel free to borrow it if you haven't tried it.) Because heartbreak is the absolute worst.
The other good remedy? Feeding myself literature that either puts my pain perspective or reaffirms it, depending on my mood. Keeping your pride is important — but it’s also important not to write off your pain, because these experiences will make you a better, more empathetic person if you acknowledge them, too.
So, in addition to Netflix, pinot grigio, and rebound sex, this list is what you should be taking in on the road to recovery. Oh, and grab a box of tissues.
If you’re feeling dismissive of men and in platonic love with your best friends, read:
How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti
Sheila Heti’s “novel from life” is inspired by conversations she recorded with her best friend Margaux. The pair of artists have interesting things to say about what makes an ugly painting, what makes a female genius, and of course the eponymous question how should a person be? Reading this book is like eavesdropping on an excellent conversation at the next table. In one of my favorite moments when Sheila and Margaux are together, some didactic guy won’t stop talking and Sheila thinks, He’s just another man who wants to teach me something. Amen.
If you’re devastated and want to experience communion in your sorrow with a speaker who’s infinitely wiser, more precise, and more deadpan than yourself, read:
“The Glass Essay” in Glass, Irony & God by Anne Carson
A 40-page narrative poem detailing the demise of a five-year relationship, visiting one’s parents, and Emily Bronte thrown in for good measure, this long poem is everything you want in a breakup tale. And you can read the entire poem here.
When Law left I felt so bad I thought I would die. / This is not uncommon.
“You remember too much, / my mother said to me recently. // Why hold onto all that? And I said, / Where can I put it down?”
If you’ve fled the country to avoid breaking up with someone, read:
Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey
Elyria impulsively leaves her husband, her job, and her entire life in New York behind to hitchhike through New Zealand. This is not an Eat, Pray, Love kind of traveling book about spiritual renewal. Elyria feels strange to herself, and she’s angry and tonally off, an affect which sometimes manifests as hilariously deadpan. She says about an experience with hitchhiking “he drove me to the same place he was going, a small and almost empty beach, without raping or killing me, which I appreciated." And she compares her wild, destructive side to a wildebeest:
I am more human than wildebeest so I’ll never be exempt from the human need for other people to be near, but because I am part wildebeest they can’t be too near, and I would like to apologize for that but I can’t apologize to everyone who deserves an apology for it, unless no one deserves anything, in which case, what a relief, because I can give everyone that nothing — I can give them nothing all day.
Lacey gives you permission to be angry and to be weird, and reassures you you will be all right.
If your friends have lost patience with you for exceeding the wallowing period allowed for someone so obviously beneath you, read:
Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust
It’s been said that you shouldn’t even try to read Proust until your heart has been broken. He writes obsessive love like no one else:
“I do find it absurd that a man of his intelligence should suffer over a person of that sort, who isn’t even interesting — because they say she’s an idiot," she added with the wisdom of people not in love who believe a man of sense should be unhappy only over a person who is worth it; which is rather like being surprised that anyone should condescend to suffer from cholera because of so small a creature as the comma bacillus.
The modern day equivalent might be your friend telling you, Please, you really have to stop talking about that artist who's not even that talented and he's weird about making eye contact, anyway. Enough already. And you agree, but you're just not there yet.
If you feel bad about dumping your first boyfriend for someone else, but feel inexorably pulled into another person’s orbit and must pursue it, read:
Anthropology of An American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann
This book is an undiscovered gem. The story is set in East Hampton at the end of the 1970s (before the Hamptons were The Hamptons), and later follows the main character Eveline to NYU in the early '80s. It could be classified as YA because of the narrator's age, but don't put it in a box — this book is too deep and affecting for that, especially if you are or ever were a bookish 17-year-old, or loved someone a little too old for you.
His existence suddenly seemed so tenuous to me, his figure so fragile. He was just one body, leading one life.
Eveline's voice is haunting and lyrical. This is a break up without recriminations; it just hurts. Read this if you're sad but not angry with your ex. Or if you feel like your identity is still being formed and you have to keep a few secrets to yourself.
If the object of your affections is a real dick but you can’t get over him, read:
Crush by Richard Siken
This is the one book of poems I give to all my friends who don’t “get” poetry. It’s a cult classic in poet circles for lines like this:
Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us. / These, our bodies, possessed by light. / Tell me we’ll never get used to it.
We pull our boots on with both hands / but we can’t punch ourselves awake and all I can do / is stand on the curb and say Sorry / about the blood in your mouth. I wish it was mine. // I couldn’t get the boy to kill me, but I wore his jacket for the longest time.
It's accessible to readers who don't typically seek out poetry, because the narrative is clear and the emotions are heart-shattering.
If you’re on the losing end of a love triangle, read:
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
Taking place not long after the relationship has ended, the speaker of Bluets isn’t so raw with grief that she doesn’t have other brilliant intellectual and aesthetic concerns. Namely a love affair with the color blue. When someone asks her why blue she wants to say:
We don’t get to choose who or what we love. We just don’t get to choose.
She loses the lover but gets an incredible book out of it, so I actually think Nelson comes out ahead here. She doesn't say it explicitly, but the existence of this book can be taken as a reminder to keep making art, even when you're in pain — OK, especially when you're in pain.
If you’re waiting for the "catastrophe of [your] personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern" read:
Meditations in an Emergency by Frank O’Hara
Frank will tell you everything will be OK, and being alive is a pleasure enough, and you will believe him. Here's a sample.
If you’re the cheater, read:
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence, or Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Constance Chatterley and Emma Bovary are your go-to women for this problem.
Even if you're the guilty party in this dynamic, rest assured that you're a part of a long, literary tradition. Take heart!
If you’re the other woman and feeling very powerful and grandiose and only a little bit guilty, read:
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart
This lyrical novel is a little enraging and solipsistic, but also, so damn beautifully written. Worth reading even if you know you'd loathe the narrator in real life:
Her shoulders have always the attitude of grieving, and her thin breasts are pitiful like Virgin Shrines that have been robbed. How can I speak to her? How can I comfort her? How can I explain to her any more than I can to the flowers that I crush with my foot when I walk in the field?
Smart believes in fate and true love, and that sometimes innocent people get hurt when soul mates meet. She's sorry for the pain she causes her lover's wife, but she presents the story as if she's powerless against a great force of nature. If you're madly in love with an unavailable person, check this out to sort through the complexities of blame.
If human beings gross you out and you think you never want to have sex with anyone again, read:
Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill
The people in these stories are unconsciously cruel, malicious, or painfully vulnerable. No one is nice. Sex is never happy or good. If you want affirmation that no relationship is absent of a power play, here you go.
If you’re at the end of a long and serious relationship, read:
Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds
Written after the speaker's husband of 30 years leaves her for another woman, these poems are crushing, precise, and ultimately forgiving. It's a monumental work.
When anyone escapes, my heart / leaps up. Even when it’s I who am escaped from, / I am half on the side of the leaver.
UGH. Enough said.
If you want to be hopeful again and distracted by smart writing that goes into the literal implications of heartbreak, read:
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
This book is so good I have a hard time talking about it. Jamison's essays range widely in topic, yet often focus on the body, whether she's writing about being a medical actor and then an actual patient, or writing about people unfairly incarcerated (e.g., The West Memphis Three). All of the essays are personal and compelling, but my favorite is the last one in the collection, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” She talks about the complicated feelings women have with owning and expressing their pain, and not wanting to be appear wounded:
Sure, some news is bigger news than other news. War is bigger news than a girl having mixed feelings about the way some guy fucked her and didn’t call. But I don’t believe in a finite economy of empathy; I happen to think that paying attention yields as much as it taxes. You learn to start seeing.
This book will heal your broken heart because Jamison reminds you to be kind to yourself and kind to others. Pain shouldn't be quantified, and neither should empathy.
If you want to unabashedly embrace the tumult of your feelings, read:
I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
Chris, a filmmaker and conceptual artist, meets Dick one night, in the presence of her husband, and falls terribly in love with him. Both Chris and her husband are writers and they construct a project around this infatuation, sending Dick faxes (this is happening in the '90s) professing Chris’ love for him. Dick’s response is lukewarm, but that’s okay because the book isn’t really about him. This is a book about obsession. In the foreword, poet Eileen Myles frames the dilemma in a fascinating way: “Chris’ ultimate achievement is philosophical. She’s turned female abjection inside out and aimed it at a man.”
In a letter that begins DD, for Dear Dick, Kraus writes:
My personal goal here — apart from anything else that may happen — is to express myself as clearly and honestly as I can. So in a sense love is just like writing: living in such a heightened state that accuracy and awareness are vital. And of course this can extend to everything. The risk is that these feelings’ll be ridiculed or rejected & I think I’m understanding risk for the first time: being fully prepared to lose and accept the consequences if you gamble.
This whole project encourages the reader to be fearless, be crazy. Perhaps that's not the best universal advice, but it is really fun to read. Imagine if you told the object of your unrequited love exactly how you were feeling. It might look like this book.
If you just need to be cheered up, read:
The Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke
If you want beauty in the face of loss, Rilke is your man. The Earth is benevolent and angels are terrifying and Rilke understands that we all want to be loved in order to distract ourselves from dying. But don’t worry, you’ll surpass the one who scorned you because you’ve engaged in this awful human experience and that is worth something. But don’t dwell too long:
Shouldn’t our ancient suffering be more / fruitful by now? Isn’t it time our loving freed / us from the one we love and we, trembling, endured: / as the arrow endures the string, and in that gathering momentum / becomes more than itself. Because to stay is to be nowhere.