No matter how many sentences I type and delete, this opening paragraph ends up sounding like the opening of Love Actually, so I’m just going with it. To say I had been feeling gloomy with the state of the world would be an understatement. Despairing is the word that comes to mind, and who could blame me? Who could blame any of us if we’re having a hard time feeling okay about humanity with an endless barrage of terrorism, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, violence—you name the horror—that can literally be accessed with a flick of the finger? If those things sometimes fill us with a debilitating rage? This month however, as I finally joined in Emma Watson‘s feminist book club, Our Shared Shelf, I was reminded that love…actually…is everywhere. And in the brilliant hands of bell hooks, that is…actually…not just a Hollywood platitude.
The mere fact of someone like Emma Watson using her platform to bring people together to read feminist works is enough to spark joy—especially amid the endless cries, “No one reads anymore!” But March’s book selection, All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks, brought me a deep renewal of hope that I absolutely did not anticipate. Jaded as we all are, I was not expecting a collection of feminist essays to present such a profoundly simple, radically positive point of view. bell hooks’ approach to the struggles we face—from the personal to the universal—is quite simply, love. hooks’s definition of love is one that she applies in all seriousness to every situation, and it is: “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth (M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled).”
Before anyone gets up in arms about the word “spiritual,” yes, hooks happens to be both spiritual and religious. But there is nothing about this definition, nor hooks’s perspective in this book, that requires a religious viewpoint. “An individual does not need to be a believer in a religion to embrace the idea that there is an animating principle in the self—a life force (some of us call it soul) that when nurtured enhances our capacity to be more fully self-actualized and able to engage in communion with the world around us.” If it sounds like this book is a more thought-version of an exasperated mom saying to her quarreling children, “Can’t you all just love each other!?” that’s because it is.
Yes, there were times throughout my reading of All About Love when I questioned the practicality of hooks’s radical vision. I got skeptical. I asked myself if, after all she knows about the world, bell hooks could have delivered this message and believed it would listen. But then there she was, a brilliant cultural critic, groundbreaking feminist theorist, and one of the foremost intellectual voices on race in this country, writing about love with nothing but utter sincerity. There she was, providing lofty standards of love that many of our own families do not live up to, no matter how much we wish they did. There she was, taking on the patriarchy, child abuse, consumerism, power dynamics, gender roles, violence, racism, and genuinely believing that radical love can create change. There she was, asking more of us and urging us to ask more of each other.
Even the moments that felt like side notes were full of optimism. At one point she writes, “Individual men and women who do not see themselves as victims of patriarchal power find it difficult to take seriously the need to challenge and change patriarchal thinking. But reeducation is always possible.” Bell hooks is not naive—she is relentless about presenting the reality of grief, the pervasiveness of violence, all of our society’s many failures. Her love is not meek or subservient, cushy or self-aggrandizing—it is willful, it is difficult, and it is powerful. She has witnessed the power of that love firsthand, in her own life and the lives of others. So whenever she presents a challenge or a failure, she follows it with a simple statement of her belief in that love.
And you know what? It turns out she’s right to be optimistic. Because there is a Goodreads group with over 123,000 members whose famous founder urged all of them to read this book during the month of March. She’s right because there are thousands of commenters in that group discussing feminism, racism, and equality. She’s right because there are hundreds of people writing about how they are incorporating bell hooks’s radical love ethic into their own lives. And if that vision came true, who are we to doubt? More importantly, who are we to despair?
Next month Our Shared Shelf will be reading another fantastic book of essays—though this one also happens to be hilarious. Go right now (I SAID NOW!) and order a copy of Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman. Read it, be inspired, and meet me on the discussion boards.