Hannah Kent on the books that taught her about love

Author of the acclaimed Burial Rites, Hannah Kent is an exquisite storyteller. Her newest historical novel Devotion is an impassioned love story, and here she reveals the different books that taught her about love. 

One of the things I love about literature is the way it extends the boundaries of understanding. Reading not only shows us the limitations of our own subjectivity, but enables us to reach beyond it, to grasp at a higher comprehension. Through books we may lead ghost lives, may break and fail and soar and love in myriad ways. Read enough and your one true and singular life cannot help but be affected by the other lives you possess on the page. It will hold more, run deeper. 

It is in this way that I think literature can teach us about love. Over the course of my lifetime, I have had my understanding of love – what it is, what it does – shaped and disrupted by the books I have read. The older I become, and the more I read, the more clearly I see, too, that there are unassailable truths about love. Some things are affirmed over and over, whether in poetry, memoir, or fiction, and it is in these repeated assertions that I have learned to never become cynical about love and its power, for we are nothing without it. If I have been taught anything by literature – and by life – I think it may well be this. 

All About Love: New Visions

by bell hooks

Book cover for All About Love: New Visions

This exquisite book by the late feminist writer bell hooks is an all-encompassing meditation on love and its meaning in our culture. Expansive and filled with both personal anecdote and academic consideration of philosophical and psychological theories regarding love and its place in our society, hooks argues that love must be understood as a verb rather than a noun, as action rather than feeling alone. hooks’ graceful reasoning that romantic love ought not to be the most important iteration of love, that the art of loving ought to be embedded within every aspect of community as a ‘love ethic’, is both radical and filled with hope. 

Our Souls at Night

Book cover for Our Souls at Night

Our Souls At Night is the kind of book that immediately comes to mind when asked about novels that speak to love. It is one of the most tender stories I have ever read - unsugared, truthfully tender – and depicts love as a gentle, illuminating force. Addie and Louis are neighbours in a small town in Colorado, both widowed, both quietly dismantled by loneliness. Then one evening Addie asks Louis if he will keep her company at nights, if he will share her bed and sleep beside her. It is a proposal that leads to a love story of transformation and joy. 

Kissing the Witch

by Emma Donoghue

Book cover for Kissing the Witch

Fairy tales are potent things; they lay the foundations of many ideas concerning love. The prince rescues the princess. Old women are reviled. Angry women are wicked. Young girls yearn only for marriage and children. In Kissing the Witch, Emma Donoghue reimagines many well-known folk stories, queering them to centre women and love between women. For anyone raised on the stultifying heteronormativity (and patriarchal undertones) of traditional fairy tales, Kissing the Witch is a freeing subversion, a folk offering to queer love otherwise absent in traditional tales. 


by Carol Ann Duffy

Book cover for Rapture

There are some books that arrive with spectacular timing, that find you in a moment of transformation and breathe with such meaning that they become sacred. My memory of finding Rapture in an Edinburgh bookstore is acute. I remember the slant of light as I stood by the shelves, reading the poem that made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck: ‘I want to call you thou, the sound / of the shape of the start / of a kiss – like this – thou / and to say, after, I love, / thou, I love, thou I love, not /  I love you.’ Needless to say, I was in love at the time, and in Duffy’s collection of poems, by turn yearning and heady, reverent and melancholy, I found perfect expression of my own young rapture. 

Tiny Beautiful Things

by Cheryl Strayed

Book cover for Tiny Beautiful Things

Years ago, in one of life’s mysterious moments of synchronicity, I was given a copy of Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things a few days after being blindsided by a devastating break-up. Tiny Beautiful Things proved to be a kind of wise compass for me at a time when I, heartbroken, might well have become mistrustful of love. It led me out of my angry retrospection and towards a possibility of happier futures. Comprising the collected letters to the once-anonymous Agony Aunt column at The Rumpus and her exquisitely compassionate responses (Strayed was unmasked as the author in 2012), the book sings with empathic, brutally honest advice, perfectly articulated. 

Discover Hannah's new historical novel, Devotion:


by Hannah Kent

Book cover for Devotion

This much-anticipated novel from the author of Burial Rites is set in Prussia, 1836. Teenage Hanne is a child of nature, but feels the pressure of domestic womanhood closing in on her. She yearns for the outdoors and shies away from friendship, until she meets kindred soul Thea. Hanne's family are Old Lutherans, granted passage to Australia which is their passport to freedom. On the long and dangerous ocean journey, Hanne and Thea's growing bond is put to the test.