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Meet the 19th-century lady’s magazine editor who helped create Thanksgiving

And the rest of the week’s best writing on books and related topics.

Thanksgiving dinner Rawpixel/Shutterstock

Happy Thanksgiving! Welcome to Vox’s weekly book link roundup, a curated selection of the best writing the internet has to offer on books and related subjects. Here is the best for the week of November 19, 2017.

Publishers at the beginning of the 1890s saw the commercial viability of their most popular product — the three-volume novel, often called the triple decker — collapse along with the commercial circulating libraries that put reading matter in middle-class hands. A newly enfranchised bourgeois consumer with purchasing power and a hectic schedule desired a more concise and affordable form of fiction. The market that resulted created a space for a particular type of tastemaker.

Susan Sontag arranged her books “by subject or, in the case of literature, by language and chronologically. The Beowulf to Virginia Woolf principle.” But never alphabetically. “I know people who have a lot of books,” she told Leslie Garis for The New York Times in 1992. “Richard Howard, for instance. He does his books alphabetically, and that sets my teeth on edge. I couldn’t put Pynchon next to Plato! It doesn’t make sense.”

The first thing that confronted me inside the room itself was pitch blackness. The outer door closed behind me and I fancied like Gregor Samsa I too was trapped in a bourgeoisie hell of the indoors.

“Aha!” I thought, you need to find the little slot to put your card in to get the lights to come on. I fumbled around and I did find the slot, but when I inserted my card the blackness remained.

I began to feel a little buzz of excitement. The Kafka Suite was deliciously Kafkaesque already. What fresh thrills and terrors lay ahead? The exhilaration began to dissipate when I turned my phone light on and realized that I wasn’t in a fiendishly difficult psychological maze partly of my own making, no, I was in an ordinary hallway and there was a problem with the electricity.

This typewriter became a fetish object for me soon after I decided — at age sixteen — that I would become a writer. Unfortunately, I had taken a wrong turn earlier in high school, before the writing light bulb had flashed on. I had a choice of Extra Options — for girls: Home Economics, Art, and Secretarial Science — and I’d chosen Home Economics. This was an entirely practical decision: of the five careers proposed for females — nurse, schoolteacher, airline stewardess, secretary, and home economist — the home economists got paid the most. I didn’t want to do any of these, but Garage Mechanic — which had showed up on my aptitude-and-inclination test — did not seem to be on offer.

Widowed as a young woman, Hale decided that instead of remarrying, she would support herself and her family with her writing. Her first novel, Northwood, published in 1827, had an entire chapter devoted to the traditional Thanksgiving dinner with a loving description of the groaning board that held not just a roast turkey and stuffing, but also “a sirloin of beef flanked on either side by a leg of pork and a loin of mutton… a goose and a pair of ducklings… and that rich burgomaster of the provisions, called a chicken pie.” There were pickles and preserves and bread and butter and an assortment of cakes and puddings and pies, “yet the pumpkin pie occupied the most distinguished niche.”

The place where the unbridled imagination worries me is when it becomes part of nonfiction — where you’re allowed to lie in a memoir. You’re encouraged to follow the “truth” instead of the facts. I’m not a curmudgeon, I’m just a scientist’s daughter. I really like facts. I have a huge respect for them. But there’s an indifference toward factuality that is encouraged in a lot of nonfiction. It worries me for instance when writers put living people into a novel, or even rather recently dead people. There’s a kind of insolence, a kind of colonialization of that person by the author. Is that right? Is that fair?

The modern gentleman may not be able to pose with his pipe, but for women there are many more unwritten rules that govern the aesthetics of an author photo. “I don’t think books speak entirely for themselves. If they did, novels by women would not have been so continually overlooked,” writes author Amanda Filipacchi. In 2015, Filipacchi set out to “pose like a man” for her session with the renowned portraitist Marion Ettlinger, who has captured the likes of Junot Diaz and ZZ Packer in her signature monochromatic style. It took some adjusting for Ettlinger to accept Filipacchi’s centered gaze — her clenched fist in the foreground. The discrepancy between male and female author photos has even made it to McSweeney’s, where it was handily spoofed in the monologue “I’m A Male Author Photo, Hear Me Brood”: “I’m just an average guy with some knuckles shoved under his chin, you know, like always.

Do we like reading about fictional rape? An affirmative answer would make us sleazy and voyeuristic, but it’s a common enough fantasy and so present in our culture that to answer with an unequivocal no can’t be right either. Yet it’s conundrums like this that make living in rape culture so confusing. The proposition that we do indeed like it validates fears about our most debased impulses, that we (or enough of us) get off on violence at some primal level. This is hard news to hear, especially for women, who we know read for pleasure more than their male counterparts. Yet it also makes innate sense to the noir fan, who understands the irresistible pull of the ugly.

Happy reading!

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