When it comes to love, few things are more thrilling and frustrating than the language of flowers. You know a red rose means love, but how about a pink one, or yellow, or white? You know what, let’s steer clear of roses as Valentine’s Day gifts—they’re overplayed. But even if you choose to give books to the special people in your life, you want to be careful about who gets what. Follow our guide to saying “I love you”—or “let’s just be friends”—through the language of books.
For friends: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
What it says: “I like you… just as a friend.”
Sometimes it happens: Someone is really into you, but you’ve got to friendzone him/her. In this situation, your best gift bet is a really long, difficult book. Nothing says “let’s just be friends” quite like a copy ofGravity’s Rainbow. Your unwanted suitor should disappear for a few weeks to fight his/her way through this book that has, more than once, been called impossible to read. At least, it should earn you some time to yourself. Think of it as a nice and especially literary way of giving them time to readjust.
When you’re not meant to be: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
What it says: “I love you enough to let you go.”
Oof. Most of us have been there: You love someone, but you know it’s better for you two not to date. Few books deal with this situation with the candor and empathy of Chabon’s Pulitzer-winning novel. Perhaps the most wrenching example of this comes midway through the book, when Sammy panics and bails on his relationship with Tracy, and there’s nothing Tracy can reasonably do about it. Chabon makes it clear that Sammy has made an awful mistake, but also equally clear that all Tracy can do—in his love for Sammy—is let it run its course. It might be best to have some tissues handy.
For friends with benefits: Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan
What it says: “Let’s get physical.”
Sure, Vaughan’s seminal comic book series is about the last surviving man traveling across the world in search of his true love—but it’s also about loving the one you’re with. Yorick gets a lot of play on his way to find Beth (including my personal favorite character in this volume, Beth II). Not to mention, the countless women who turn to one another for comfort after all the men die, because c’mon, they’re only human. Bonus: You can give this gift to a FWB of any gender, since it doesn’t scream “manly” or “girly.”
For your significant other: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
What it says: “I love every version of you.”
While The Sparrow contains a love story that could give Sammy and Tracy a run for their money, when you’re searching for a Valentine’s gift for your significant other, check this book’s other big relationship. Anne and George have been married for decades, but this is how she looks at it: “I have been married at least four times, to four different men.” As she explains, “Every ten years or so, George and I have faced the fact that we have changed and we’ve had to decide if it makes sense to create a new marriage between these two new people.”
Even without marriage, people grow and change within long-term relationships. Whether you want to be with that new person is how you know if your love will survive.
For your crush: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
What it says: “I like you, like you.”
Crushes aren’t just for high school: Rowell’s heroine Cath is a socially awkward college freshman so consumed by her Simon Snow fanfiction and being separated from her twin sister Wren that she doesn’t even notice the sweet guy right in front of her doing everything he can to make her open up. Give your crush a gentle nudge with this funny, warm novel.
For parents: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
What it says: “Thanks for loving me no matter what.”
Parenting, we hear, can be a pretty thankless job. But, if you want to thank Mom and Dad for their unconditional love, we suggest gifting a copy of Franzen’s Freedom. It’s a scathing and, frankly, pretty cynical criticism of the American nuclear family, which exposes how our dysfunctional relationships with our family members inform the people we become. If you feel like you didn’t turn out too badly, this is a great way to thank your parents for that.
For unrequited love: Batman: Mad Love and Other Stories by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm
What it says: “I secretly love you…. Please notice me.”
It’s difficult to watch Harley Quinn moon over the Joker—less because of how creepy “Mister J” is, and more because we’ve all experienced that gnawing, needy, unreturned love. Her award-winning origin story, Mad Love, tells how psychiatrist Dr. Harleen Quinzel falls in love with the Joker while treating him at Arkham Asylum and turns to a life of crime to win him over, only to be rebuffed over and over. Even when she tries to kill Batman herself, she only enrages the Joker more. And yet, she just keeps coming back.
For your BFF: MWF Seeking BFF by Rachel Bertsche
What it says: “You complete me.”
Making friends as an adult is hard. What better way to say “thank goodness I have you” than to share this hilarious memoir of a woman’s year-long search to find a new BFF. After moving to Chicago to get married, Bertsche realized that she had left all of her closest friends behind in her old hometowns and had no one to turn to for girl bonding time in her new one. Whether you found your bestie in college or (like Bertsche) in an improv class or through a friend rental website, they’ll be just as grateful for the reminder of how rare your friendship is.
For you: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling
What it says: “I love me!”
Single, mingling, or happily paired off—Valentine’s Day should also be about loving the person who you truly can’t be without: yourself. Kaling’s funny and quirky memoir serves as a great reminder that, whether you’re strutting your stuff at your dream job or binging on Netflix and ice cream in bed, you’re a rock star!
Alternatively, pick up the Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Cookbook to bake some V-Day munchies. #TreatYoSelf by actually treating yourself.