clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

That time Hemingway was quarantined with his sick kid, his wife, and his mistress

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

Ernest Hemingway works at his typewriter while sitting outdoors, Idaho, 1939. Hemingway disapproved of this photograph, saying, ‘I don’t work like this.’
Lloyd Arnold/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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 Vox’s weekly book link roundup, a curated selection of the internet’s best writing on books and related subjects.

If you must go outside right now, then you are doing vital work, and I hope these links will help you in your downtime. If you don’t have to go outside right now, then the absolute best and most heroic thing you can do is to stay inside as much as possible, and I hope these links will help make your time inside as pleasant as it can be.

This is a very hard moment, and we are going to get through it together. Here’s the best writing about books the web has to offer for the week of March 22, 2020.

This isolated framing of an emergency, the close-quarters perspective that values dramatic and ornate circumstances while turning away from the larger societal ramifications, is as much of a horror as the Red Death itself. In the economy of crisis, industries often supersede individuals—though recessions (like the one we’re inevitably facing) have more vulnerable casualties who aren’t as able to bounce back. […] Like Poe’s revelers, our leaders will stay safe inside while the less fortunate suffer elsewhere: “All these and security were within. Without was the ‘Red Death.’”

“It has been so helpful for us financially,” said Koch about the care packages, encouraging other booksellers to try it. “Be realistic about how many you can pack a day so that people know what to expect about wait times when ordering,” she said. “And stock up on shipping supplies as soon as possible. My current stress dream is that I run out of boxes and have no way to get more.” Koch has also seen community support on the bookstore’s Patreon page, which has added more than 50 patrons since the Covid-19 crisis began.

“Don’t be afraid to ask your community to help,” said Dach, offering advice for other bookstores considering the care package strategy. “People do want to support their local businesses and this is a fun way to do it.”

The poet-critic has been an institution in English literature because usually only an artist has the stubborn animus, the conviction that art should be one way rather than another, that makes for interesting criticism. To write something new is to imply that the writing which already exists is insufficient. Of course, this can never be demonstrably true: there is always already more than enough literature to occupy any reader for a lifetime. Only an artist’s egotism, his certainty that he has something new to offer that the world should not be without, gives him the fruitfully skewed perspective on literature required to see it as deficient.

The Murphys and the Fitzgeralds did what they could to keep up the morale at the Hemingway-Pfeiffer homestead. In the early evenings at cocktail hour, they would park their cars on the road in front of the house have a drink by the fence lining the small front yard. Hemingway, Hadley, and Pfeiffer held up their end of the party from the veranda.

They were indeed social distancing pioneers, and it gave the Fitzgeralds and Murphys front-row seats to the drama of the Hemingways’ unconventional new arrangement—their “domestic difficulties,” as Zelda put it. At the end of each evening, the group mounted their empty bottles upside down on the fence spikes. By the time the Hemingways and Pfeiffer left a few weeks later, these trophies ran the entire length of the fence.

The Spanish Flu isn’t well represented in the Western literary canon—in fact, a November 2017 article by Patricia Clifford in Smithsonian Magazine asked “Why Did So Few Novels Tackle the 1918 Pandemic?” Perhaps it was forgotten as the United States’s attention moved on from the Depression to World War II, and then to a new society of affluence that doubted such plagues could ever touch it again. Though major writers from Porter’s era who took on the 1918 pandemic include the likes of Willa Cather, William Maxwell, and Thomas Wolfe, Pale Horse, Pale Rider likely leads the pack in terms of modern-day readership; Clifford quotes scholar Catherine Hovanec, who calls Porter’s book “perhaps the best-known fictional account of the epidemic.”

Looking ahead, only one thing is certain: Writers now have a lot more time on their hands to write. The end of the crisis may find literary agents inundated with fresh manuscripts. The problem is that by then, there may not be enough agents — or booksellers or publishers — left in the business to absorb all the submissions.

“While the coming months will provide more writing time for a lot of people, many will see their time reduced,” said literary agent Jennifer Carlson, partner at Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency. “Many of us will bear excruciating grief and hardship, while others of us may get away more with discomfort and upheaval.”

Slews of institutions are in the market for armchair archivists—volunteers who can generate knowledge by clicking through digitized resources, deciphering handwriting, tagging photos, and more.

Several institutions have already seen an uptick in digital detective work since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. A transcription project at the Newberry, a research library in Chicago, has seen a surge in contributions: “In two weeks, we’ve received 62 percent of the traffic we typically see over the course of an entire year,” writes Alex Teller, the library’s director of communications, in an email.

When I began to research the history of crosswords for my recent book on the subject, I was sort of shocked to discover that they weren’t invented until 1913. The puzzle seemed so deeply ingrained in our lives that I figured it must have been around for centuries—I envisioned the empress Livia in the famous garden room in her villa, serenely filling in her cruciverborum each morning­­. But in reality, the crossword is a recent invention, born out of desperation. Editor Arthur Wynne at the New York World needed something to fill space in the Christmas edition of his paper’s FUN supplement, so he took advantage of new technology that could print blank grids cheaply and created a diamond-shaped set of boxes, with clues to fill in the blanks, smack in the center of FUN. Nearly overnight, the “Word-Cross Puzzle” went from a space-filling ploy to the most popular feature of the page.

The literature of contagion is vile. A plague is like a lobotomy. It cuts away the higher realms, the loftiest capacities of humanity, and leaves only the animal. “Farewell to the giant powers of man,” Mary Shelley wrote in “The Last Man,” in 1826, after a disease has ravaged the world. “Farewell to the arts,—to eloquence.” Every story of epidemic is a story of illiteracy, language made powerless, man made brute.

But, then, the existence of books, no matter how grim the tale, is itself a sign, evidence that humanity endures, in the very contagion of reading. Reading may be an infection, the mind of the writer seeping, unstoppable, into the mind of the reader. And yet it is also—in its bidden intimacy, an intimacy in all other ways banned in times of plague—an antidote, proven, unfailing, and exquisite.

For those, such as Jane, who remain well, “Classes were broken up, rules relaxed. The few who continued well were allowed almost unlimited licence.” Some of the most evocative passages of the book describe a child’s magical sense of suddenly being left to her own devices, observing the world. Those running the school are too busy to mete out strictly limited meals: sometimes Jane is just handed “a large piece of cold pie.” It does her good. Parents who are concerned, in this time of closed schools, with maintaining educational normalcy might find something to reflect on in those pages. Epidemics are a time out of time, and perhaps less a moment to worry about screen time. Many families, of course, have more existential concerns.

Pretty much all genre romance is “everything is OK at the end” but bad things happen in the meantime. But some Georgette Heyer has plots that work because bad things seem about to happen and are averted—this is different from everything being all right in the end, the bad things never occur, they are no more than threats that pass over safely. Cotillion does this. Two people are separately rescued by the heroine from iffy situations that could potentially become terrible, but they don’t. I think this counts. (It’s funny too.) That makes me think of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey in which the worst thing that happens is somebody exaggerates and somebody else has to go home alone on a stagecoach…that’s really not very bad.

When the bill came, Ally practically wrestled him to split it—she didn’t want to owe this dude anything—and in the process managed to knock over her second glass of lager, drenching her silver knit shorts (vintage, one of a kind, now seeming to disintegrate on her body). The waitress was lovely and brought over a glass of plain seltzer. She was a kind-seeming, college-aged girl who would have likely made a better date. At least they could have bonded over this douchebag who had, early in the meal, commanded that their server recite the menu from memory. “No thanks,” she’d protested before taking his order for two shrimp appetizers. (Both for him.)

Still, closing the borders could not come at a worst time. This is peak tourist season in Genovia (when it’s 75 degrees outside, sunny, and absolutely perfect weather for water sports, bocce, and dining al fresco). The Genovian Hotel and Restaurant Association is NOT going to be happy with me if I shut down the borders.

But instead of mentioning any of these things to the Prime Minister, I said, “Okay, then! Let’s do whatever we have to do to beat this thing. Genovia strong!”

“Genovia strong!” the Prime minister said.

Then we elbow bumped one another because the Prime Minister said handshakes are not proper social distancing protocol.

And here’s the week in books at Vox:

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

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.