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Why Fahrenheit 451 still matters in the e-book era

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

Michael B. Jordan in Fahrenheit 451 (2018) Michael Gibson © 2018 HBO
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Welcome to the weekly Vox book link roundup, a curated collection of the internet’s best writing on books and related subjects. Here’s the best the web has to offer for the week of May 6, 2018.

As the virtual world becomes more dominant, owning books becomes an act of rebellion. When a printed book is in your possession, no one can track, alter or hack it. The characters in my film have never seen a book. When they first encounter a library, the books are like water in a vast digital desert. Seeing, touching and smelling a book is as alien to the firemen as milking a cow by hand would be for most of us. The firemen are transfixed by the books — but they still have to burn them.

Along with obligation and requirement, “necessary” can also suggest inevitability, even predestination, the sense that a work is both mandatory for the audience’s political education and a foregone response to the world as it is. There are many noncomprehensive adjectives we can apply to good art: moving, clever, joyous, sad, innovative, boring, political. But good art doesn’t have to be any of these things, necessarily; what we want out of it is possibility. To call a work “necessary” keeps the audience from that possibility and saps the artist of autonomy as well.

One of the greatest heroines of Victorian literature, Marian is introduced in Collin’s novel through Walter Hartright’s rather voyeuristic eyes. Walter drools over his future sister-in-law from afar, particularly her figure – “visibly and delightfully undeformed by stays” – at least until he gets close enough to see her face: “Never was the old conventional maxim, that Nature cannot err, more flatly contradicted – never was the fair promise of a lovely figure more strangely and startlingly belied by the head that crowned it. The lady’s complexion was almost swarthy, and the dark down on her lip was almost a moustache.” As Cher Horowitz from Clueless might put it, she’s a total Monet (great from a distance, but a mess up close).

You can’t really understand the emotional side of scarcity if you’ve never been hungry. For too long, books and stories by Latinx writers were cordoned off into ethnic writing courses. Characters with our last names and who shared our culture were practically nonexistent in the books I grew up with. The same goes for much of the arts; you seldom hear about Latino filmmakers or Latina painters unless you seek out courses like “Latin America Cinema” or “Mid-Century Mexican Art.”

Díaz broke through that barrier. His books were taught in general writing courses, and his stories were widely shared by readers of all races and ethnicities. Awards, residencies and accolades many of us could only dream of flowed his way. But there’s a problem with pinning all your hopes and dreams on one person — they can fail just like anybody else. He might become just another fallen idol in the literary world, but for the Latinx readers who looked up to him, his betrayal feels so much more personal, like a tío who let us down.

Memoirist and poet Mary Karr, whose name has long been saddled to that of her worshipped ex David Foster Wallace, is now tweeting that Wallace violently abused her. The fact that he abused her is not a revelation; this has been documented and adopted by the literary world as one of Wallace’s character traits. In a 2012 Atlantic interview, David Foster Wallace’s biographer D.T. Max mused that Wallace’s violence contributed to his glory, read: all in all made him “a really fascinating guy.”

It is impossible to name the single best writer for the same reason that you can’t speak of the single best human being: There are too many different criteria for judgment. That is why the “canon” has always been a false metaphor when it comes to literature. A book earns the status of a classic, not because it is approved by a committee or put on a syllabus, but simply because a lot of people like it for a long time. Literary reputation can only emerge on the free market, not through central planning; and the Swedish Academy is the Politburo of literature.

I do not believe in an able-bodied audience. If the audience is larger than five people, then the audience certainly includes disabled and nondisabled people; whether Deaf or Hearing; neurodivergent or neurotypical; in chronic pain or, for the present, pain-free. Likewise, I doubt that most editors are nondisabled. They may be disabled but not willing to claim the identity; their own internalized ableism may prevent them from claiming; or they may have concerns about safety and/or stigma.

Happy reading!