“The Amorous Heart: An Unconventional History of Love”
By Marilyn Yalom
c. 2018, Basic Books
$27, $35 Canada; 279 pages
Be mine. That’s the plea this month, accompanied by Valentine animals, chubby cherubs, cute cartoons, and pink emojis. “Be mine” is plain enough, but there - how did that bi-globed, pointy-bottomed symbol come to represent love? In “The Amorous Heart” by Marilyn Yalom, you’ll see how a human organ became a “whimsical” icon.
Two thousand years ago, love was a painful thing.
Greek and Roman citizens “agonized” over it, says Yalom, and blamed the pain largely on the gods; they spoke of love and wrote of it, but they didn’t have a symbol for it. Meanwhile, the poet Catullus mentioned a certain seed that might prevent conception, and it just happened to be shaped like our modern-day heart.
“It is unlikely” that his words had much to do with the symbol we put on Valentine’s Day cards. Still, that bi-globed, pointy-bottomed shape showed up often throughout antiquity, on pottery and manuscripts, while the heart itself continued to be the supposed seat of romance, both courtly and surprisingly violent.
It wasn’t until the “high Middle Ages” that the heart was finally tied, once and for all, to love, especially for the French and Germans, and for religions that venerated the hearts of Jesus and Mary. It was then that the heart became “especially popular as a love motif in jewelry” and in other items, such as songbooks, games, manuscripts, and everyday items used by lovers and friends. Renaissance artists and writers added Cupid to the palette and while he was a popular figure, the heart “never completely disappeared.”
By the mid-1600s, the jig was up. Physicians knew that the heart was just a plain old organ that circulated blood and had nothing to do with love. Facts were facts and 18th-century artists started “ignoring the heart” in favor of the newly-discovered brain, but that didn’t deter those with romance at … heart. The symbol was carried to the New World, where it became folk art, religious insignia, more jewelry, more fodder for poetry and bad songs, and yes, for Valentines.
“The Amorous Heart” is a bit of a quirky book.
It’s for romantics, but not completely because it’s quite steeped in history. It’s for historians, but not completely because it includes a lot about literature. Lovers of the written word may tire of its romance and history. Heavy sigh.
With all that, it may seem as though this book is a hate rather than a heart, but that’s not at all true. What author Marilyn Yalom brings to this narrative is sprightliness and a good sense of curiosity, as well as a way of suddenly surprising readers. Here, you’ll read about the heart’s travel through history, but you’ll also learn that Shakespeare used the word “heart” almost as often as he used the word “love.”
How can you not love that?
Still, I think historians and those who are exceptionally curious about esoteric things will get the most out of “The Amorous Heart.” And if that’s you then, of course, this book should be yours.
Kids’ Valentine’s Day books
By various authors and illustrators
c. 2017, 2018
Prices starting at $10
Who do you love? Make a list: Mom and dad, of course. Your grandmas and grandpas, cousins, aunties, uncles, brothers and sisters. You probably even have a lot of friends on your love list! And after you’ve read these great Valentine’s Day books, you’ll want to be sure they know it …
Pucker up because “I Love Kisses” by Sheryl McFarlane and Brenna Vaughan shares the best smoocheroos with yous. What’s your favorite kiss? Who gives it? Read this book and see if you agree.
So what is Valentine’s Day all about? In “Valensteins” by Ethan Long, you’ll see what happens when Fran the monster goes to a (not so scary) party and everybody teases him because, well, you know what happens when you fall in love, right? But is Fran really in love, or does he just like making paper hearts that look like other things? Don’t be scared to find out.
But what is love, anyhow? In “Love” by Matt De La Peña and Loren Long, you’ll see how it all starts with two shining faces standing over your crib. It’s in the sunset and in a blanket wrapped around your shoulders. Love is in an open sprinkler in the park and laughter; it’s in spring and summer. Sometimes, it looks like love is gone but then it returns in the arms of someone you adore. It’s in an upturned bucket. In the middle of a field of flowers. And someday, it’ll be in your future.
But back to Valentine’s Day. In “Click, Clack, Moo I Love You!” by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin, the party’s on in the barn tonight and Little Duck’s made the whole place festive. She sprinkled glitter everywhere, there are balloons, music, everybody’s dancing and it’s a blast! And then one uninvited guest shows up …
And, lastly, what if you’re really not the Valentine-sending type? What if you just want to do something nice, but it doesn’t have to be sweet or sugary or glittery? Who would care? In “This is Not a Valentine” by Carter Higgins, illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins, you’ll see how that works.
Who doesn’t love a good book – especially when it’s all full of hugs, kisses, and giggles? You know your child does, and that’s why these books make the best Valentines.
For an adult gift-giver, any of these will work as a read-aloud. “Love” is a little more on the serious side, but it’s diversity of character and setting is appealing. “I Love Kisses” is very simple in language and may be perfect for the youngest readers, while “Click, Clack, Moo I Love You!” and “Valensteins” are silly enough for pre-schoolers and early gradeschool kids. And children who are a bit older – perhaps Third through Fifth Grade – can probably enjoy “This is NOT a Valentine” all by themselves.
But then again, won’t you want to enjoy the fun, too?
Of course you will, so look for these not-so-mushy Valentine’s Day books for your favorite kid – because, of course, you know they’ll love ‘em.
The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.