Welcome to Vox’s weekly book link roundup, a curated selection of the internet’s best writing on books and related subjects.
This Monday is Memorial Day, which might mean a day off for you. It does for me, and I am contemplating how best to spend it during this odd and cloistered time. A long walk through my neighborhood, maybe, with plenty of stops to look at the lush flowers of early summer. Perhaps I’ll try to cook something elaborate and summery, with asparagus and beautiful new lettuce and parmesan cheese.
I will absolutely be reading, because reading is how I am making meaning out of the world right now. Fiction is a technology designed to help us feel our emotions, and god, do I have a lot to feel these days. You probably do too.
And so, to help us get in a reading frame of mind, here is the best online writing on books and related subjects for the week of May 17, 2020.
Sure, some of the guidelines the state has provided are useful, but there’s still a lot left up to interpretation. In response to these gray areas, businesses and organizations are jumping in, filling my inbox with checklists and free signage to hang in my store, assuring me they know best. If actual human lives are at stake, I’d really love to hear from some experts. Perhaps some veteran scientists and public health officials. I don’t think I should be relying on the checklist from my local office supply store.
- Town and Country, one of the most reliable sources of hate reads out there, has turned to celebrity book curator Thatcher Wine to critique celebrity bookshelf backgrounds. Here is Mr. Wine on Stanley Tucci’s kitchen bookshelf:
“I can’t focus on what Stanley is making with that crisis unfolding on that top bookshelf in the background. Leaning books on the right, no bookend holding them back on the left, and a beautiful bowl about to meet its demise. They’ve probably been that way for years without anyone getting hurt, but there’s a lot of tension, like a good Stanley Tucci film perhaps.” Score: 4/10
For her fellow workshop member, Davidson Garrett (no relation), a retired taxi driver of forty years, writing poems is grounding right now because, at least in his approach, the medium is both topical and timeless, giving context to more immediate stimuli. “I go to Madison Square Park a lot because I live near there. It’s so beautiful, with the flowers and everything. The flowers—I just needed something joyful in my life,” he said. “I needed a transfusion of joy. . . . I wrote a poem about the pipe organ recently because I find music to be healing and very salubrious.”
The writers are an unusually cocooned bunch, safely distant from the world of layoffs, mass graves, Zoom funerals. (It’s only more recently that we’ve seen first-person accounts by subway workers, paramedics, ER doctors and nurses.) Their quarantines are, on the surface, bucolic interludes laced with light anxiety; panic is sieved through Instagram’s tidy grid of artful domesticity, simmering bone broth, early bluebells and the first fledglings spied on solitary walks. The uncertainty of the tone is what makes these pieces oddly moving, the damp childlike fright that creeps through resolve. Together, they represent a struggle in real time to give language to a set of emotions that are, as yet, painfully nameless.
“The Machine Stops” would become famous a century after its publication for supposedly having envisioned technologies like social media—and the dangers thereof—long before they appeared. In particular, it predicted computer interfaces and programs like Skype that would allow us to communicate with people across the globe without leaving our rooms. People live in isolation in chambers, where they can call up music and real-time video-chatting at a click; the Earth’s surface is, authorities declare, uninhabitable, so people are advised to stay in their cozy rooms, which everyone has adapted to as their standard for normality. In these ways, the story seems chillingly prescient, capturing dim-but-definite elements of the world we inhabit today, like an astronomer peering through a faintly clouded lens.
Scholars in Asian American studies can identify and document xenophobia, and they can disseminate those findings in real time to legal advocates. Media scholars can draw on their knowledge of contagion films to alert health organizations to harmful visual iconographies and suggest alternatives. Literary scholars can identify how narratives are being used to spread misinformation, and they can advise health communicators how to create compelling counternarratives to challenge the fictions of conspiracy theorists. Creative writers can draw on their narrative expertise to craft compelling stories that help us imagine a path forward and the steps we could take to get there — a “science fiction prototyping” for pandemic response.
Curzio Malaparte is a phrasemaker before anything else—sensuous phrases that stick in the imagination for a long time (“the sun’s baked-honey brilliance”). Although he fancied himself a thinker (and was quite jealous of the renown of Gide, Sartre, and Camus), his pronouncements on “the French” (“France is the last homeland of intelligence”) or on communism or existentialism or on women are often confused or repetitive or banal or wrong, whereas his recording of a sensation or a bizarre anecdote or his memory of a strange phrase is always indelible if not unerring.
This quarantine has brought me back to Burroughs, who claimed to believe—which means he didn’t but wanted to believe—that language was a virus. Though it’s difficult to puzzle out the exact pathology—exactness was not Burroughs’s practice—a summary might go like this: Language is a virus that crossed the species barrier from an extraterrestrial civilization.
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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