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 March 15, 2020.
Beloveds, I am so sorry coronavirus is happening to all of us. I hope that you and the people you care about are safe. I myself am finding that there are limits to how much I am able to read about what’s happening right now, and I imagine that some of you are probably in the same boat. So for this week, I’ll be organizing the link roundup a little differently. At the top is a selection of things to read about books that have nothing to do with coronavirus, and at the bottom is a selection of links that are all about it. Dig in however you see fit, and stay as safe as you possibly can.
Here are the links to stories about books that have nothing to do with the pandemic
- At Vanity Fair, the great Ann Patchett profiles Reese Witherspoon and her book club. (If you want more on Reese’s Book Club, we delved into the business and image-making angles last year.)
After she accepts a cup of coffee from the appalling coffee machine and says good morning to all the booksellers, we begin making slow loops around the tables and past the shelves, playing the parlor game devoted readers can never get enough of: Have You Read This?
Witherspoon opens with Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, the January pick for her book club. “It does such a good job exploring work dynamics, race, class.”
I counter with Greek to Me by Mary Norris, which she hasn’t read. I have it in my head that this book would make a terrific movie and the next thing I know I’m pitching her. “A copy editor at The New Yorker decides to learn ancient Greek!” I say. “It’s like Wild but for the mind.”
She shakes her head. “Too interior.”
- At Atlas Obscura, Winnie Lee talks to Alexandra Sankova about her new book on how Soviet-era science fiction magazines thought about space:
Soviet graphic design always developed actively and responded to the situation in the country quickly. This was primarily due to the fact that posters, magazines, books, brochures, etc., were the most effective means of propaganda. They were fast and cheap to manufacture, and they presented material in a striking and vivid way, making information visual and generally understood.
Publishing houses throughout the country collaborated with individual artists and workshops that were part of the Union of Artists of the USSR. Scientific and technical magazines and design research institutes often provided sanctuary and official employment to nonconformist, underground artists. Working for magazines, they embodied unusual, fantastic concepts, reflected on the essence of things, made conceptual designs for cover pages, and drew a new reality that had nothing to do with their real environment.
- At LitHub, Emily Temple tells the story of how J.R.R. Tolkien stopped W.H. Auden from writing a book about him:
But ten years later, when Auden proposed to write a book about Tolkien for the Christian publisher Eerdmans, as part of their “Contemporary Writers in Christian Perspective” series (subjects would include J.D. Salinger, John Updike, Saul Bellow, and C.S. Lewis), Tolkien flatly refused. And while Auden is often characterized as one of the people who legitimized Tolkien’s work in the literary world, and the two are often described as “close friends,” at least in 1966, Tolkien didn’t seem to agree (at least with the latter bit).
- At JStor Daily, Matthew Wills walks us through the way Emily Dickinson’s poetry wrestles with the scientific inquiries of her day:
Kohler explores Dickinson’s “rich engagement with scientific and other scholarly disciplines” as manifested in her poetry, particularly in her rich metaphors. As the luck of a contingent universe would have it, Dickinson’s most prolific years coincided with “profound disputes” about the nature of knowledge, how knowledge was produced, and “what ‘knowledge’ might even mean.” The poet, an avid reader of the Springfield Daily Republican (edited by a friend), Scribner’s, Harper’s, and the Atlantic Monthly, was very well aware of these wider intellectual debates. Her poems—the vast majority of which were not published in her lifetime—are a treasure trove of documents showing an adult working through what she learned as a child and a youth.
- At Catapult, Elisa Gabbert talks about why she keeps a notebook:
Writers’ habits don’t just emerge. We cultivate them—they are first aspirational, and then superstitious. If something works once, we hope it will work again. Years ago, in graduate school, I noticed how certain poet friends would casually, but with intent, remove a small notebook from their jacket pocket or bag and jot something down. I noticed it the way you notice how someone smokes—the glamour in the gesture, and how it is referential; it aligns one with a tradition. I started keeping notebooks so I could be a writer who keeps a notebook.
- At the Baffler, the great lit world contrarian Jessa Crispin argues that the art world has cloistered itself away from red staters:
Olah writes from a UK perspective, where class structure is perhaps the most useful way of understanding this cultural divide. In the United States, there’s a more pronounced regional divide, with the cultural industries centered almost entirely on the coasts. The only entry point for a Middle American is through the university system, which so dominates the cultural landscape that all five recipients of 2019’s National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 prize for “emerging writers” have MFAs, and more than half of the National Book Award for Fiction winners attended elite schools; eight of those winners attended Yale, Harvard, or Dartmouth.
- The Paris Review just launched a new feature called The Author Index, where you can find every piece in the Review ever written by or about any author who has appeared in its pages. Great for browsing!
And here are links to stories about books that directly discuss the pandemic
- The LA Times asked authors what books they thought they might finally read during their time at home, and as per usual, Nell Zink’s answer is a delight:
For the record, I’ve read the classic long-term TBRs — Proust (educational at the time; never got another serious crush on a gay guy), Melville (very great) and “Infinite Jest” (astonishingly puerile) — and see no reason to try “The Man Without Qualities” because I’ve never liked Musil all that much. My favorite genre is Quaint and Curious Volumes of Forgotten Lore. I’d really like to leaf through [German stage star] Tilla Durieux‘s autobiography [“Meine ersten neunzig Jahre: Erinnerungen” or “My First Ninety Years: Memories”]. I’m sure if I ask politely in antiquarian bookshops in Berlin and Vienna I’ll eventually find it. Or [she orders it online]. … Four euros including shipping, not bad.
- Children’s authors and illustrators are creating new content for kids stuck at home. Kidscreen has a list.
- Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin assures fans that he is staying safe and working on The Winds of Winter, the Guardian reports:
“For those of you who may be concerned for me personally … yes, I am aware that I am very much in the most vulnerable population [for coronavirus infection], given my age and physical condition. But I feel fine at the moment, and we are taking all sensible precautions,” the 71-year-old author told fans on his website. “Truth be told, I am spending more time in Westeros than in the real world, writing every day. Things are pretty grim in the Seven Kingdoms … but maybe not as grim as they may become here.”
- All book tours have been canceled for the foreseeable future. At the New York Times, Tammy Tarng talks to some of this season’s authors about what they’re doing instead of in-person events, including Kevin Nguyen of Vox sister site The Verge. Here’s Kevin on how this season might shape the future of books promotions:
A lot of the authors, publicists and editors I’ve talked to feel defeated by the circumstances. I get it. I’m definitely discouraged a bit, too.
But there’s an opportunity here, if we can all figure it out. The reality is that book events, while still effective in some ways, are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Which makes sense. Reading is a private, intimate act. Book tours have been a way to try and make these things social. (How many events do you go to that feel like they drag on for too long?) They’re also expensive, and unless you’re one of a handful of already well-established authors, publishers are seeing them as an expense with very little return. I’m hoping these hurdles encourage us to think about how book promotion can be reinvented.
- Many publishers and booksellers are running special offers and discounts right now. Publishers Weekly has a running list.
- At the Conversation, Chelsea Haith takes a look at what we can learn from plague stories:
The Decameron (1353) by Giovanni Boccaccio, set during the Black Death, reveals the vital role of storytelling in a time of disaster. Ten people self-isolate in a villa outside Florence for two weeks during the Black Death. In the course of their isolation, the characters take turns to tell stories of morality, love, sexual politics, trade and power.
In this collection of novellas, storytelling functions as a method of discussing social structures and interaction during the earliest days of the Renaissance. The stories offer the listeners (and Boccaccio’s readers) ways through which to restructure their “normal” everyday lives, which have been suspended due to the epidemic.
- At the New York Times, Sloane Crosley thinks about what it will be like to write about all this someday:
Things are moving far too quickly, and not just from an epidemiological perspective. Yesterday was approximately six and a half years ago. For writers, as the tentacles of the coronavirus unfurl each day, everything is copy. But what happens when every writer on the planet starts taking notes on the same subject? Will we all hand in our book reports simultaneously, a year from now? The nature of tragedy is that it takes more than it gives, but it’s also produced some of our most iconic literature. The Great Depression brought “The Grapes of Wrath.” The Spanish Inquisition helped inspire “Don Quixote.” Cholera gave Camus “The Plague” (so to speak). Shakespeare, Twitter has been quick to remind us, wrote under quarantine. There’s something comfortingly glib about art-shaming in the midst of being told you’re a vector for death. The Accidental Murderer: And Other Stories.
- At LitHub, Liesl Schillinger reads Camus:
If you read The Plague long ago, perhaps for a college class, you likely were struck most by the physical torments that Camus’s narrator dispassionately but viscerally describes. Perhaps you paid more attention to the buboes and the lime pits than to the narrator’s depiction of the “hectic exaltation” of the ordinary people trapped in the epidemic’s bubble, who fought their sense of isolation by dressing up, strolling aimlessly along Oran’s boulevards; and splashing out at restaurants, poised to flee should a fellow diner fall ill, caught up in “the frantic desire for life that thrives in the heart of every great calamity”: the comfort of community. The townspeople of Oran did not have the recourse that today’s global citizens have, in whatever town: to seek community in virtual reality. As the present pandemic settles in and lingers in this digital age, it applies a vivid new filter to Camus’s acute vision of the emotional backdrop of contagion.
And here’s the week in books at Vox:
- The grim, necessary optimism of sci-fi author Becky Chambers
- The evolution of hand-washing, explained by a historian
- The Mirror and the Light brings Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy to a gripping close
- “You can’t scare a virus”: World War Z author Max Brooks on pandemics, fear, panic, and hope
As always, you can keep up with all our books coverage by visiting vox.com/books. Happy reading!