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Iris Murdoch believed in the Loch Ness monster

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

Visitors Take In The Ruins Surrounding Loch Ness
A model of the Loch Ness monster in in Drumnadrochit, United Kingdom.
Jeff J Mitchell/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 December 16, 2018.

  • There’s a pretty common genre of poetry called “after” poems, where one poet responds to another, often using the same language. A recent controversy has some poets asking where the line falls between “after” poems and plagiarism. Kat Rosenfield has the story at Vulture:

Contemporary poets also often draw on deeply personal and traumatic experiences — experiences that tend to be bound up with identity. The blurrier the boundary between real life and narrative, the more fraught mimicry becomes, even if done with the best of intentions. (Consider the modern valence of another word for borrowing, appropriation.) When Low initiated a conversation in verse with Cortese’s Lucy — described in a tweet as “a character who could embody the pain my body could no longer hold” — she was also, if unwittingly, starting a public conversation with Cortese herself.

We were looking for the Future Book in the wrong place. It’s not the form, necessarily, that needed to evolve — I think we can agree that, in an age of infinite distraction, one of the strongest assets of a “book” as a book is its singular, sustained, distraction-free, blissfully immutable voice. Instead, technology changed everything that enables a book, fomenting a quiet revolution. Funding, printing, fulfillment, community-building — everything leading up to and supporting a book has shifted meaningfully, even if the containers haven’t. Perhaps the form and interactivity of what we consider a “standard book” will change in the future, as screens become as cheap and durable as paper. But the books made today, held in our hands, digital or print, are Future Books, unfuturistic and inert may they seem.

I get pedantic about the placement of the vocative comma in “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” The song is not a suggestion to “merry gentlemen” to rest but an imperative to gentlemen to “rest merry.” Someone on Twitter admonishes those who claim that the spelling “Xmas” takes the Christ out of Christmas: X is not just a soulless abbreviation (say, for Xanax) or the unknown quantity in an algebraic formula (Let x equal what you will) but the Greek letter chi, which looks like X, which is rendered in English as “Ch,” which is the first letter of the Greek spelling of “Christ” and therefore Christ’s initial — Christ is the X in Xmas. So shut up.

Earlier this year, in the middle of a somewhat dismal kick of reading about grief, I picked up John Bayley’s gorgeous, heartbreaking account of watching Alzheimer’s overtake Iris Murdoch, his wife of forty years. In passing, or seemingly in passing, Bayley notes that Murdoch, a brilliant philosopher and novelist, “was convinced of the reality of the Loch Ness Monster”; when they visited friends in the Scottish Highlands, he recounts, she “could not be dissuaded from sitting for hours in the heather above the loch, staring down hopefully.” I suspect Bayley included the fact for the same reason that it stayed with me: because he, too, cannot stop keeping watch, hoping to catch a glimpse of the woman he married, who likewise now seems to “live in the unfathomable depths, surfacing at intervals.”

She is careful with her word choices, avoiding any disruptive sounds that might cause someone to wake up. There’s lots of immersive description, lots of onomatopoeia, lots of soothing, sonorous language. “You’ll smell it before you even see it, that unmistakable aroma that fills your nose and seeps into your senses, instantly mellowing into a smooth and soothing scent,” intones Fry, as Blue Gold opens.

If you are reading this and you’re an author who published a book in 2018, I apologize. I would tell you not to bother scrolling through lists to see if your name appears or not, but I would never expect you to listen to me. If you feel compelled to look at every user review you receive on Goodreads, who am I to tell you not to? I understand wanting to know. But just a reminder: I have read 100 books published in 2018, and still haven’t gotten around to at least half of the books that continue to show up as critical consensus titles.

Esmé Weijun Wang, a novelist who has written about living with schizoaffective disorder, has experienced that reality firsthand. “It may be true that mental illness has given me insights with which to work, creatively speaking, but it’s also made me too sick to use that creativity,” she says. “The voice in my head that says ‘Die, die, die’ is not a voice that encourages putting together a short story.”


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

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

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