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Elite library sorters race to process books in cutthroat competition

Also: Aaron Sorkin talks To Kill a Mockingbird, a fanfic writer talks going pro, and the rest of the week’s best writing on books and related subjects.

Frankfurt Book Fair 2012
Stack of books at the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair.
Hannelore Foerster/Getty Images

Welcome to Vox’s weekly book link roundup, a curated selection of the internet’s best writing on books and related subjects. Here’s the best the web has to offer for the week of November 11, 2018.

For a number of years, more and more French novelists have succumbed to a pair of troubling trends.

The first is the reality-show novel, a degraded form of autofiction reduced to narcissistic testimonies that satisfy the voyeurism of readers and fill the pockets of publishers. The other is the costume novel, which responds, in a simplistic and backward-looking way, to our need for fiction by limiting itself to a history already understood, without looking at the one that is, the one that comes, a history that is frightening and elusive, certainly, but not indescribable.

A day’s work is typically about 40,000 requests, and each one of those books needs to be placed — by hand — onto an empty space on the relentless sorter, with the barcode facing the right way. But November 9, 2018, is no ordinary day. For the sixth time, an elite squad of 12 professional New York sorters — the fleet-fingered men and women who feed books into the machine — will compete with their counterparts from Washington State’s King County Library System to see who can process the most books in an hour. Losing to King County, which serves the Seattle suburbs and was the first library in the United States to get a Lyngsoe sorter, is not an option.

To seal a modern-day envelope (on the off chance you’re sealing an envelope at all), it takes a lick or two, at most. Not so for Mary or for Machiavelli. In those days, letters were folded in such a way that they served as their own envelope. Depending on your desired level of security, you might opt for the simple, triangular fold and tuck; if you were particularly ambitious, you might attempt the dagger-trap, a heavily booby-trapped technique disguised as another, less secure, type of lock.

Having bestrewn my novel with pockets, for example, I discovered that the clothes of European medieval men and women didn’t have them. No pockets? Where did they put their things? Where did they put their cold hands? How could it be that these people could build splendid cathedrals, yet hadn’t thought to make a pocket?

“I would say the first draft was one in which I pretty much just tried to take certain scenes in the book and stand them up, dramatize them,” he recalls. “And I showed that first draft to Scott, and he gave me two notes. One was that we need to get to the trial [of Tom Robinson] sooner. And the other was, ‘Atticus can’t be Atticus from the beginning of the play to the end.’ And just hearing that note, I understood what one fundamental difference was going to be. Atticus is not the protagonist in the book — Scout is — and in this play, Atticus was going to be the main protagonist.”

For me, a big breakthrough moment when I was able, in my first book, to somewhat reconcile my passionate love for this movie [Monty Python and the Holy Grail] with my desire to “be literary.” What happened was, I saw that this distinction I’d been making between “entertainment” and “literature” was not meaningful, not at the highest levels, if we understand that the real goal is: communication of the urgent.

Rather than outlining her books — “it just messes up my entire story” — she prefers to “write socially.” With After, she’d review the comments on her most recent chapter and then tweak the story’s plot: If readers finished the section feeling happy, she’d throw in a twist to make them sad. If they were incensed at Harry, she’d have Tessa misbehave. “I had feedback every day, all day,” Todd said. “I always just felt like a puppet master playing with everybody’s emotions and doing this with the characters.” Wattpad is going even further by analyzing data on its stories — including sentence structure, vocabulary, readers’ comments, and popularity — in an effort to deduce exactly what makes a book succeed. In time, it may try to automate the editing process.

I grew up, my first nine years were in Ghana in West Africa, and I didn’t even think of myself as an entity of a black woman, because there I thought of myself as a person first as opposed to a race. When I came to the states, it took me a while to adjust to a life where I was categorized in that way. My senior year of high school and going to college changed me a lot. It was during that time that I discovered Chimamanda, and I wanted to be a woman like that, a woman who sort of had that same story.

Literature has always been a humanist endeavor: it intrinsically and helplessly affirms the value of the species; its intimations of meaning energize and comfort. But what if there is scant succor to be had, and our true natures are not noble but necrotic, pestilential? We have un-earthed ourselves. Yet we claim the right to gaze at our irresponsibility and greed through fiction’s tonic filter.


Meanwhile, here’s a rundown of the week in books at Vox:

As always, you can keep up with Vox’s book coverage by visiting vox.com/books. Happy reading!