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Books you can read about the US-Mexico border instead of American Dirt

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

Photo of the US-Mexico border wall in Puerto Anapra, in the Chihuahua state of Mexico.
Yuri Cortez/AFP/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 January 19, 2020.

Racism and gatekeeping in the publishing industry are big, systemic problems; at least American Dirt has started a much-needed conversation on the subject. What can readers do? One small step is to commit to read more books by Latinx authors. In service of that goal—and inspired by the recommendations writers are already trading on Twitter—we’ve put together a by-no-means-exhaustive list of 17 outstanding books on the border and immigration. Perhaps unsurprisingly, our list skews toward Texans—but we’ve also included authors from elsewhere, as well as genres ranging from fiction to memoir and poetry. There’s no shortage of talented Latinx writers with all kinds of stories to tell. Let’s make space for them.

As Edward Said helped us see with Orientalism, people can be quite well versed in a foreign literature and use this knowledge to support real-life brutality. Perhaps some of the architects of the Iraq War read my beloved Muhammad Khudayyir, although I hope they never had anything so beautiful in their hands. Moreover, we usually ask literature to be humanizing only when it’s from Over There. I have never heard of anyone asking French literature to humanize the French. We can be awful, loud Americans in Paris; of course, there might be consequences.

So it is that we just found out—in mid-January 2020—which 103 authors were nominated in 1969. That was the year Irish absurdist Samuel Beckett won the prize. One hundred and three is a good number of authors to choose from. By comparison, there were 70 authors nominated in 1967, a year that five women were nominated.

Morrissey likened its tone to two friends “sitting at a bar talking about their favorite football teams over beers.”

For James, this irreverent approach avoids the pitfalls associated with both sides of the ever-churning debate about the status of the literary canon. “Too often the canon means ‘these books are untouchable and let’s talk about them in that way,’” he said. “People fought about ‘Moby-Dick’ in the 1800s. Why can’t we fight about it now?”

Or to be specific, the orchard of Woolf’s home in England, Monk’s House, did, as did her relationship with Vita Sackville-West and one of her most famous literary creations, the gender-bending time-traveling character Orlando.

Which is, perhaps, a clue to Woolf’s sudden super-relevance, given the broader conversation around gender, as well as the way digital life has collapsed time, allowing everyone access to almost everything from almost every era at once. As the Givenchy show notes read, “Hours, days and decades melt away.”

All three seek to put the reader into uncomfortably close proximity with ugly masculine entitlement and toxic behaviour. These works of fiction add something important to the current conversation on masculinity. Like Tolentino and McBee, they get that it’s all too easy to fall back on the empty rhetoric of respect for femininity. If, as Tolentino argues, “communication about morality” has become rote, then perhaps we have to find new ways of communicating; perhaps, in rethinking our language, we might equip ourselves for urgent moral action. This is one way of understanding the work that literature can do.

The key is to find the right book for you—the book with that unquantifiable factor that in some way excites you, whether it’s a smart new hardcover by a favorite reporter or a dog-eared copy of a Jacqueline Susann novel you found on the sidewalk. Really, the point is to stay in love with books — that’s what will keep you reading in the post–book report era of your life.

Elizabeth Peabody’s disagreements with the real-life Bronson Alcott take the form of wonderings, additions, or, on one occasion, a lengthy bracketed aside: “[N.B. I generally agree with the views that Mr. Alcott brings out from his pupils; but in this instance I disagreed; and I am inclined to think that he unconsciously led them into his own views; by contradistinguishing mercy and justice…].” Here is the set-apart space in Peabody’s own book where she permits herself to think her own thoughts. Here and only here can she express her worry about the way Alcott is reaching inside his students’ heads and shaping their thoughts to mirror his own.

No one wakes up in the morning hoping to be as vapid as possible. But eventually you internalize the squeeze. Everyone down the chain adjusts their individual decisions to the whim of the retailer, or to their best guess at the whim of the retailer. If it’s Barnes & Noble, you may hear that a cover doesn’t work, that the store won’t carry the title unless you change it. If it’s Amazon, you may not hear anything at all. You go back and adjust your list of wildly optimistic comparative titles — it’s The Big Short, but . . . for meteorology! But is anyone still talking about The Big Short? Maybe it’s Hillbilly Elegy, but for meteorology.

Chronology can be cruel. It couldn’t be otherwise, but it seems a pity that Anne Brontë’s bicentenary comes last, as if she is plodding patiently behind her bolder, flashier sisters, the way she is so often portrayed by biographers and critics. But perhaps 2020 will turn out to be the best year to celebrate her work, as the #MeToo movement inspires searching, complicated literature, and gives us new ways of reading the Victorians. There is a passage in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall that feels almost painfully current.


And here’s the week in books at Vox:

As always, you can keep up with all our books coverage by visiting vox.com/books. Happy reading!

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