Image description: A photo of the cover of All About Love (red with black text).
Image credits to Amber Phung
The summer before I began my freshman year at UCLA, I picked up a copy of “All About Love: New Visions” by bell hooks at my local bookstore after briefly skimming the back cover. As a teenage girl about to enter the next chapter of her life, I was entranced by the question hooks promised to answer in her book: “What is love?”. Before reading, I had always believed that love was something like a myth: unobtainable and only possible in movies, books, and TV. But post-”All About Love,” it was like everything I had known before shifted: love now became an intersection of racism, feminism, capitalism, patriarchy, and family. bell hooks’ nuanced definition of love transformed the way I perceived every relationship and interaction, but at times, the book fell short with regards to intersectionality.
bell hooks, known by friends and family as Gloria Jean Watkins, was a trailblazing American scholar and activist who explored the overlaps of love, race, class, gender, sexuality, media, and feminism in her writings. Her pen name was borrowed from her maternal great-grandmother and was purposely all in lowercase as to emphasize the message of her works rather than her persona.
Although it was published in 2000, hooks’ messages in “All About Love” resonate with a multitude of contemporary social issues. “All About Love” is first and foremost an ode to love and its remarkable healing powers. hooks does an incredible job of combining data, psychological and philosophical ideas, quotes, and personal anecdotes to formulate a comprehensive reading experience that encourages readers to delve into what love means to them. By defining love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth” in the very first chapter and referring back to this definition of love throughout the book, hooks establishes a clear stance on love and its capabilities. As a reader, I learned that love should be perceived as a verb (something to be applied in every interaction), and not just a noun (a fleeting feeling).
Furthermore, throughout her book, hooks carefully parses out the role that love plays in the private and public spheres, encouraging readers to question social institutions. hooks portrays consumerism, capitalism, and cycles of power struggle through a lens of lovelessness. Her easy-to-digest writing style both allows readers to resonate with her words as well as find personal connections to the text itself. One line that particularly stood out to me was: “One of the best guides to how to be self-loving is to give ourselves the love we are often dreaming about receiving from others.” This quote encapsulates hooks’ ability to create hard-hitting, universal statements that any reader can resonate with.
Most interestingly, hooks enters unexplored territory regarding our collective cultural desire for love yet contradictory fear of it. “In our society we make much of love and say little about fear. Yet we are all terribly afraid most of the time.” She touches on modern media and its obsession with dysfunctionality, a dimension that I had never considered as influential to our perceptions of love: “Mostly they tell us that everyone wants love but that we remain totally confused about the practice of love in everyday life. In popular culture love is always the stuff of fantasy.” Reading about the clashing nature of fear and love reframed my perception of illusions of love in the media. Growing up, love at times seemed like a concept reserved only for fiction, and not meant for real life. But hooks’ unmasking of love taught me that I had already had love surrounding me all along, and I only had to overcome my fear of vulnerability to accept it.
Additionally, her chapters about abuse, childhood, and loneliness furthered these revelations, and I would recommend them to anyone who is in the process of healing and searching for a grounded perspective on difficult topics. Her skillful exposure of ideas that have embedded deeply in our society pushes readers to step out of the confines of their heart and explore what love means to them. She repeatedly encourages inner reflection and prioritizes healing: “To return to love, to get the love we always wanted but never had, to have the love we want but are not prepared to give, we seek romantic relationships. We believe these relationships, more than any other, will rescue and redeem us. True love does have the power to redeem but only if we are ready for redemption. Love saves us only if we want to be saved.”
Unfortunately, hooks at times lacked inclusivity regarding religion and sexuality in her evocation of love. In two particular chapters, “Spirituality: Divine Love” and “Destiny: When Angels Speak of Love,” hooks explicates the power that religion had in her redefining of love and repeatedly references Christianity & the Bible. This caused her to sometimes come across as implying that one needed to be devout and religious to experience love. It’s also important to remember that throughout history, the church and religion has harmed people and restricted their love, so it was unfair to ask that everyone turn to spirituality to understand love. In this scenario, the digestibility of hooks’ writing becomes a double edged sword. By virtue of the fact that she frames love through universal, relatable statements, hooks subsequently assumes a universality in religious commitments. I personally did not grow up religious and did not understand her biblical references, so if you lack religious background and interest like me, you should be conscious of her sermon-like prose in some parts of the book. Furthermore, I found that hooks is quite gender-essentialist in her book: her descriptions of romantic love mainly adhere to heteronormative standards and only acknowledges the LGBTQ+ community in passing.
hooks’ enlightening takes on the polarizing narratives about love in modern times highlighted the shortcomings of modern culture. As a reader, I felt inspired by her writing to incorporate a love ethic into my own life to truly nourish myself & others. However, the book did lack enough religious and queer identity inclusivity. In spite of the book’s flaws, bell hooks still was able to reconstruct beliefs, shift cultural paradigms, and efficiently tackle a topic that many have been scared of – love. Although she passed away in December of 2021, hooks’ legacy lives on in the widespread messages she promoted and continues to promote to readers everywhere.