Valentine’s Day can be dazzling, meh, or terribad, which is my new favorite slang word (get it? terrible + bad). Here are some stats that neatly wrap up these extremes: About 10 percent of all marriage proposals are made on Valentine’s Day, Diamonds.net reports, the most of any day all year. Sweet, right? “But 80 percent of those on the receiving end,’’ the site adds, “feel that this conveys a lack of imagination.’’ Indeed, one recipient, whose V-Day proposal aired on the big screen at a Rangers hockey game (“Melissa, will you be my Blueshirt Bride?’’) gave the guy a scornful look - and walked right out of the stadium as the fans booed.
For some, the safest way to play the day is to deny it. In predominantly Muslim Malaysia, the government has actually campaigned against the holiday. Its origins are judged too Christian, and there’s too much room for sensual shenanigans. In 2011, officials floated this slogan: “Awas Jerat Valentine’s Day’’ (“Beware the Valentine’s Day Trap’’).
So how can you indulge without creating your own trap of raised and dashed expectations? Try giving your sweetheart books about love. Here’s one surefire idea: “All There Is: Love Stories from StoryCorps’’ (Penguin, 2012) by Dave Isay, a collection of gems transcribed from NPR broadcasts of excerpts from the StoryCorps oral-history project wherein various regular Americans interview each other about their lives. Talk about a lump in the throat. I’m not proud; “All There Is’’ made me verklempt a ridiculous amount of times. Love found, lost, and found again, new couples, gay couples, elderly couples, a 9/11 widow, it’s all devastatingly touching.
I love the toll collector who leaves an orange cone in his lane so his girl will know where to pull up (“It’ll be like keeping a candle in the window for you.’’). I love the couple that fell for each other under mortar attack in Iraq; the two who happened to have the same last name, mistakenly got each other’s e-mails, and in the forwarding found their destiny; the Slovak who, in a pivotal romantic moment, tells an American woman he’s in love with: “I am sick of you.’’ He explains: “Translated from Slovak language, that’s how we say ‘I’m lovesick.’ ’’ She jokes: “I decided to give you a second chance anyway.’’
This next title doesn’t flare the same emotional impact, but “A Natural History of Love’’ (Random House, 1994) is still a great choice. Author Diane Ackerman (“A Natural History of the Senses’’) takes on this “ancient delirium’’ with gusto, transporting us through the earliest writings about love (from Egypt) to the greatest flowering of romance (in 11th-century France) to some anatomy (early dissections turned up a nerve that runs from our fourth finger straight to our hearts, which is why it’s the ring finger) to chemistry. That over-the-moon feeling? It’s a one-two of happy-mood oxytocin and the amphetamine-like phenylethylamine (known as PEA). In that wild beginning infatuation phase, sweet PEA is the reason you and your swee’pea could stay up all night talking (or not talking).
Speaking of chemistry, if you’re the bold and racy type, present your amour with a copy of “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex’’ (Norton, 2008) by Mary Roach, America’s funniest home science writer. The researchers’ bland euphemisms alone are worth the ticket: couples having sex for Masters and Johnson are “reacting units.’’ Kinsey gets his funding for “mammalian behavior studies.’’ Truthfully, there isn’t much else I can reveal in a family newspaper, but let’s just say here is the place to learn how porcupines manage lovemaking, why short women may experience more pleasure than tall ones, and how 17th century “impotence trials,’’ to prove grounds for divorce, worked in France. (Picture, oh, the Supreme Court and every doctor from your HMO rushing into your bedroom at the crucial moment, carrying clipboards).
For you married valentines, or those considering the rules of engagement, be glad you live in modern times, and not just because impotence trials are gone (viva Viagra!). Rather, realize that the love match is a recent historical addition to wedlock, according to “Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage’’ (Penguin, 2005). For thousands of years, marriage was mostly about “getting good in-laws and increasing one’s family labor force,’’ says author Stephanie Coontz. She’s highly entertaining on variations on this theme (like the Chinese “ghost marriage’’ in which women “married’’ dead single men, so they could gain auspicious in-laws). Love, as a legit motivation for matrimony, only truly bloomed when wage labor spread during the Enlightenment. Now a man could earn his own money, without being tied to the land, and so he didn’t have to rely on his parents’ approval. Likewise, a woman could earn her own dowry, and thus steer her choice. By the 1850s, many couples were opting for “marriage by fascination,’’ as the French called it. Fascination; whether it’s brought on by true love, dark chocolate, or good books, that’s my wish for you this Valentine’s Day.
Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore @comcast.net.