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 May 5, 2019.
In an industry — publishing — that loves data about as much as a vegan digs barbecues, numbers are not normally dwelled upon. Whereas we can know to the dollar how much money Avengers: Endgame has made, almost in real time, book sales are guesstimates based on Nielsen BookScan’s admittedly incomplete reporting. So it was a big deal when a study back in 2005 — initiated by PEN World Voices — announced that less than 3 percent of all the books published in English were originally written in another language.
My feeling about the Harper’s piece is that it is an eloquent sally against a state of affairs that doesn’t actually exist in book criticism. As far as I can tell, the argument takes some interesting turns but essentially boils down to the idea that there aren’t enough intellectually rigorous (that is, negative) book reviews. And that just seems false! I’ve probably read a dozen blistering, look-through-my-fingers pans so far this year, and dozens more polite putdowns. Beyond that lies a more subjective territory. Lorentzen, presumably reading many of the same people I’m reading, is lamenting the heat-death of criticism while a lot of writers I know are seeing a Big Bang.
- BookMarks has also started a new series in which they interview librarians. Here’s an interview with Dev Aujla, the founder of New York’s Sorted Library:
I wanted to create a space where people would be encouraged to look across genres to answer the questions they were pursuing—a type of search that is less directed than we’re used to. I wanted visitors to experience non-linear thinking. Sorted Library does this by creating small reading rooms that are full re-creations of famous creative people’s libraries. They are copies of the books they used, and lived with and visitors to Sorted Library create collections of 3-5 books from within these libraries. You don’t know what is in the library before you come so it is really impossible to plan and you are forced out of your genre fairly quickly.
I was nineteen years old and had been living in Asheville, North Carolina, for one month. Before that, I’d grown up on an isolated farm in southern West Virginia and all I had ever cared to do was read and write. In Asheville though, for the first time ever, my life was more exciting than any words. My new life was all about bodies. I lived in a two-bedroom apartment with six other people. Our bodies were young, strong, and seemed endlessly replenishable. We could fill them up and run them down again. We could use them for love, for money.
What struck me more than the night’s general delightfulness, was how much my experience of reading the book was influenced by the speed with which I was suddenly moving through it. To that point, I’d been reading the book the way I usually read books, which is to say in five- or 10-minute snatches before bed. And I’d been more or less enjoying it — watching Rendell’s criminal protagonist get out of prison, following along as he searched for his victim — but I’d been enjoying it the way a person enjoys hors d’oeuvres at a cocktail party. Those cheese puffs are delicious; I just wish I could sit down with a plate of them. Now, by reading for an hour or two straight, I’d found my way into the caterer’s tent. I could savor the particular tart flavor of the author’s voice. I could admire the elegance of the trap she was setting for her doomed criminal.
Steel is a creature of habit. She gets to her office—down the hall from her bedroom—by 8:00 A.M., where she can often be found in her cashmere nightgown. In the morning she’ll have one piece of toast and an iced decaf coffee (she gave up full-throated caffeine 25 years ago). As the day wears on, she’ll nibble on miniature bittersweet chocolate bars. “Dead or alive, rain or shine, I get to my desk and I do my work. Sometimes I’ll finish a book in the morning, and by the end of the day, I’ve started another project,” Steel says.
Superstitions can be a form of prayer, as well as an exorcism in miniature. You release the fear that comes from feeling responsible for everything that happens to you — an especially American delusion. You acknowledge the mysterious convergence of forces sustaining you, and you make your humble petition for more of the same: more light, more love, more life. Safe passage to the next moment, and the one after that.
Writers may be difficult in their private lives, but on the other side of the camera lens they tend to be nervous but sweet. At the point where they need to be photographed for a book jacket or a magazine article, the book they’ve been working on for years is finally done (and the reviews aren’t out yet). Unlike actors or “celebrities,” they are unaccustomed to being photographed. They have no physical “brand image” to project, or a “better side” for their profile. Almost all writers start the session by telling me that they are not photogenic. (I tell them to decide after they have seen the photos.)
When Margaret Atwood began her novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” with the line “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium,” she may well have been referring to the Lavietes Pavilion here.
After all, the dystopian story abounds with references to Boston and neighboring Cambridge, and suggests a Harvard University — Lavietes, its basketball arena, included — repurposed for the militaristic theocracy of Gilead.
Boston Lyric Opera is running with that possibility.
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!