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It turns out Ben Franklin plagiarized, but it’s a complicated story

Constitution Center Starts 1 Year Countdown

Welcome back to Vox’s weekly book link roundup, a curated collection of the week’s best writing on books and related topics. On big news weeks, we sometimes do jokey little intros to these pieces like, “LOL, sure is a lot happening outside of book stuff right now, haha!” but friends, here’s the problem: Every week is a big news week now. We can just take it as read that we all know that, right? You know where the front page of Vox.com is; you can head right on over if you want to know about the latest developments on whether or not President Trump is in Russia’s pocket and how close we are to impeachment. In the meantime, here are some people saying smart, interesting things about books.

Poor Richard’s proverbs are, and have been for centuries, a part of the American canon. We identify them not only with Franklin’s literary talent, but also with a unique colonial-American slant on Enlightenment-era philosophy. Widely celebrated, this association ignores two inconvenient truths. Poor Richard’s sayings were not American, and for the most part Franklin didn’t write them.

Whatever the reason, as the influence of pop stars and the music they makes expands, they inevitably must become subjects of our literary works, because literature still serves as one of our best cultural sphygmomanometers (you know, those blood pressure machines with inflatable rubber cuffs that squeeze your arm) and cultural mirrors.

“I think writing about pop culture is important, full stop, because we’re so deeply immersed in it, and we have such a weird incomplete uncomfortable understanding of what that might mean,” said Zan Romanoff. … “How could it not be important to write about a set of figures we interact with, at the very least by listening to the radio and the background music in drug stores, pretty much every day!” Romanoff said. “How could it not be important to interrogate the instinctive emotional reaction we have to the constructed facade of celebrity persona?”

On the one hand, I can run a D&D campaign about how poorly certain races like half-elves are treated, and my group will rail against the injustice of it all, but if I bring up any real-world situation of inequality, I get the cold shoulder at best or at worst booed down and given “focus on the game” lectures. As Junot Díaz allegedly said: “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s 1/3 in Elvish, but put in two lines of Spanish and [white people] think we’re taking over.”

Publishers’ production values have soared and bookshops have begun to fill up with books with covers of jewel-like beauty, often with gorgeously textured pages. As the great American cover designer Peter Mendelsund put it to me, books have “more cloth, more foil, more embossing, page staining, sewn bindings, deckled edges”.

Ideally I write in a silent room with a magnificent and inspiring view of the natural world. I do not always have access to such a room. Instead I have street noise and an inbox full of administrative email, and if I’m really unlucky, actual phone calls to make. When I was depressed and unpublished and in my early 20s, I developed a full-blown phone phobia.

Cultural canonization — the social construction of immortality — is “meant to be a suggestive concept,” write Marijan Dovic and Jon Karl Helgason in their new study, National Poets, Cultural Saints. “It allows for a simultaneous focus both on the cultural saints and those who manage their afterlives.” Since producing celebrations of Dylan’s centenary in 2014, I have become fascinated by the story of his afterlife and its stewardship in the last six decades, both at the Y and in Wales.

Even though I no longer felt that I was constantly willing him into being, when I closed the door, I still felt — sometimes still do feel — as though by closing the door I am allowing the possibility that he would cease to exist. The reality, which my stack of books served as talisman against, is that all of us eventually do cease, and babies are no exception. I had always known of the looming threat of death, of course, but until I gave birth, I hadn’t believed it applied to me.

Happy reading!

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