Saturday, February 8, 2014

Daniel Jones Knows a Thing or Two About 'Modern Love'

by Roberta Bernstein)

As editor of The New York Times' "Modern Love" column, Daniel Jones does a herculean job. He has received some 50,000 submissions in his almost 10 years at the helm and it's likely that many, no matter how heartfelt, are filled with treacle, writerly pretensions and the same-old-same-old anecdotes.

Yet out of this barrage of work he has published a goodly number of beautifully written and insightful essays — pieces which, taken together, say much about the times in which we live.

In Love Illuminated: Exploring Life's Most Mystifying Subject (with the Help of 50,000 Strangers), Jones uses his own experiences and what he has learned from his singular education at the Times to take readers on an amicable ramble through love's many phases. He admits he has no concrete lessons to impart – "love is about curiosity, not certainty," he writes – and he relies, with varying degrees of success, on his personable writing style and innate curiosity to trace, per the book jacket, "the arc of human relationships."

In the first chapter, "Pursuit," Jones tells how he met his wife by a "fluke of circumstance." His personal anecdotes are among the book's funniest — a wry mix of understatement-cum-cluelessness sprinkled with affection. ("We did eventually decide that our relationship qualified as love," he writes.)

But this chapter is also indicative of the book's weakness: Despite or maybe because of the avalanche of stories Jones has received and so is maybe pinned under, his insights sometimes feel stale. Yes, online daters approach love like a job and women no longer need partners to have babies. While such topics can strike a distinctive chord (specific examples from "Modern Love" submissions help), just as often they don't.

His more pointed observations, however, are compelling. Jones suggests that the very act of believing in destiny, bollocks or not, can open people up to finding love where they might have been closed off. And he has learned through college essay contests that young adults have gone from relationships that are "strictly physical with no emotional component" (hook-ups) to those that are "strictly emotional" (conducted online), yet both are primarily about "self-protection and invulnerability." He also suggests couples sometimes feel nostalgic for tough times, such as a partner's bout with cancer, as they can forge hard-to-replicate intimacies.

Jones is a good-humored humanist. That should be enough to keep many readers interested, especially those fans of "Modern Love" who enjoy affairs of the heart or just like to know that their own messy love lives are hardly aberrations.

Love Illuminated

By Daniel Jones

William Morrow

3 stars