All About Love
by bell hooks
image of All About Love book
I finished this book on a Friday afternoon sitting in my favorite wine bar in Fort Greene while enjoying a glass of orange wine. It was 90 degrees outside, but comfortable inside the bar as the long afternoon sun flooded through the windows. I had biked the Williamsburg bridge after work, in need of some time outside and a date with myself. I sat there, content, as I soaked up every last word of this book.

I start with this context because the environment was a perfect distillation of how this book made me feel. At the risk of sounding cheesy, the sunlight enveloped me the same way these words did. The wine lightened my mood and the spirit of bell hooks’ ideas about love intoxicated me. All About Love is a beauty, balancing gentleness and urgency in perfect tandem.

As is the key to my heart, the first chapter starts with a challenge to give love the right language in order to become a more loving society. Having a precise and articulate definition of love allows one to love more expressively. When two people are living in different (or non-existent) definitions of love, the spiritual life of the soul is muddied up. hooks defines love as a set of ingredients: care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, trust, honesty, and open communication. These are the foundations on which love rests. Each ingredient is a different refraction of loving or being loved. The active work of love begins with making sure my language is comprehensive of the expansive possibilities of all the ingredients of love.

Once establishing the proper language, one must refine their values in order to live by a love ethic.

Hooks argues that were we, collectively, to demand that our mass media portray images that reflect love’s reality, we would see love portrayed in such a way that would radically alter our culture. The way the media portrays love now (at least, as a reference for this 2001-published essay) shows couples in romantic partnerships who don’t know how to discuss their needs in a healthy or fruitful way. There is no art of loving, no active learning about what it takes to love someone on a personal, long-term level. Instead, mass media focuses on domination and violence because we all have more intimate, familiar experience with these themes than with the realities of love.

We all know what violence looks like. All scholarship in the field of cultural studies focusing on a critical analysis of the mass media, whether pro or con, indicates that images of violence, particularly those that involve action and gore, capture the attention of viewers more than still, peaceful images. The small groups of people who produce most of the images we see in this culture have heretofore shown no interest in learning how to represent images of love in ways that will capture and stir our cultural imagination and hold our attention.

The argument I would have for this, in my 2022 context, is a movie like Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, where familial love is portrayed loudly, boisterously, and overtly instead of mysteriously or quietly. It is a manifesto on how to portray the realities of active love, stirring our hearts while entertaining our minds, and more filmmakers, screenwriters, and artists should take note.

There is a big focus on spirituality in this book, given the ominous nature and spirituality of love itself. Hooks defines spirituality this way:

When I speak of the spiritual, I refer to the recognition within everyone that there is a place of mystery in our lives where forces that are beyond human desire or will alter circumstances and/or guide and direct us. I call these forces “divine spirit.” When we choose to lead a spirit-filled life, we recognize and celebrate the presence of transcendent spirits.

Whether you are religious or not, if you have any self-awareness, you can acknowledge that there is an interconnectedness we have as human beings — a spiritual force that binds us to each other. The way hooks straddles the agnostic and the religious in discussing this force is tactful: it reaches the reader wherever they are in their spiritual journey. Actively choosing a life in this spirit is choosing a life that “honors the sacred dimensions of everyday life.”

In the chapter on commitment, hooks recalls the platitude, “if you do not love yourself, you will be unable to love anyone else.” The work of this, i.e. self-love, begins with critically analyzing whether or not you live consciously. Living consciously is (once again broken down into more atomic fragments) the practice of self-acceptance, self-responsibility, self-assertiveness, living purposefully, and living with integrity. And, she adds, it is especially important to analyze whether we practice these matters as women, because the world does not often teach us that we have agency in these matters, whether systematically or implicitly.

Regarding feminine self-assertiveness, for example:

One reason women have traditionally gossiped more than men is because gossip has been a social interaction wherein women have felt comfortable stating what they really think and feel. Often, rather than asserting what they think at the appropriate moment, women say what they think will please the listener. Later, they gossip, stating at that moment their true thoughts. This division between a false self invented to please others and a more authentic self need not exist when we cultivate positive self esteem.

Self-love is an asset. Affirming that I have agency in matters of living consciously allows me to restore my own equilibrium and love myself in the service of living in love.

This is required reading. As I read back through these chapters in order to form a coherent summary of this book, I am all over again mystified. It's really hard to articulate why and how much I loved this book. I am only scratching the surface on the renovational impact they had on me, and I will continue to return to it to immerse myself in the intentional formula of love.