The unromantic guide to bookish Valentine's

We prepared a list of tragic books perfect for those sceptical of love.

multiple writers
14th February 2022
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, Flickr, Picryl
While many of us enjoy beautiful love stories, from classics to YA, reading every time about another Elizabeth and Darcy can get annoying. That’s why we prepared a list of truly tragic, (un)romantic books for those sceptical of Valentine’s and those bored with characters defeating all obstacles solely thanks to the power of love.

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Image credit: Look and Learn

Which book could be more suitable for Valentine’s Day than the German classic about the tragedy of unrequited love? It tells a story of a young man Werther who, having fallen in love with a woman engaged to another man, does little more than suffer and complain over the whole 150 pages of the novel. I won’t say that it’s a relatable story for those of us who know the pain of unrequited love (I certainly hope not), but at least it can give some motivation to move on and not end up like Werther. And the additional unquestionable advantage is that you can easily finish the whole book during Valentine’s Day – a truly perfect, (un)romantic choice for those bored of happy endings.

Maja Mazur

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Valentine’s Day provides a perfect occasion to pick up this 750-page long brick telling a story of pain, suffering and trauma, and occasionally love and friendship between two men. If you’re tired of innocent, unproblematic relationships in literature, you will welcome this book with relief. There’s not a single chapter in A Little Life where characters are simply happy, not being haunted by their tragic past. Still, when Jude and Will cuddle, you naively have hope for a beautiful romance - just to be disillusioned in the next paragraph. It’s a great choice for all sceptics of Valentine’s Day – Yanagihara vividly shows that love, in fact, doesn’t conquer all.

Disclaimer: this book contains graphic descriptions of self-harm, suicide, sexual abuse, child abuse and ableism. Please consider that before reading it.

Maja Mazur

Layla and Majnun by Nizami Ganjavi

Layla Visits Majnun in the Palm Grove, Image credit: Flickr

The star-crossed lovers plot has propped up most of the world’s literary history: Romeo & Juliet, Troilus & Criseyde, Shanbo & Yingtai, Tristan & Isolde, Percy Shelley & himself. The audience love when lovers suffer for their amusement, and rightfully so, because watching a happy relationship is about as interesting as Percy’s love poetry. There is no better star-crossed sad couple than Layla & Majnun. Leading the 7th-century Islamic poem is Qays ibn al-Mulawwah, later nicknamed Majnun (crazy/possessed), whose mental health degrades when his star-crossed crush marries another man.

James Atkinson has a fantastic translation that is easily found online, with such memorable emo-couplets as: “Frail life is but a moment’s breath; / The world, alas is full of death” and “for formless, riding through the air, / devouring death is everywhere.” Unfortunately, like most early star-crossed lover stories, it follows the ‘virgin love’ trope for the couple, which is as exciting of a combination as unsalted butter, but if you can survive this, I urge you to give it a read. Fun fact, this poem was also half of the inspiration behind Eric Clapton’s "Layla", the lesser-grand half being about sniffing around George Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd.

Josh Smith

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

If you can’t survive Valentine’s on unsalted butter, read Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, which has all the salt and no romance-butter to whet your emo appetites. Murakami is the master of awkward oral and this book is his magnum opus of unromantic smut. He blesses the salt cellar with a sprinkle of tragedy and a coming-of-age structure. No book has captured me as much as Norwegian Wood emotionally and, if I were to be forced to reread a book every month, it would be my first choice. However, with the book so attached to the potential tragedies of youth, a trigger warning would be advised for anyone dealing with losing a friend or who would rather avoid books that deal with suicide in an unapologetically blunt manner.

Josh Smith

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