The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico

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Most Anticipated: The Great 2023A Book Preview

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Welcome to our biannual Great Book Preview! We've assembled the best books of 2023A (that is, the first half of 2023), including new work from Nicole Chung, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Claire Dederer, Brian Dillon, Samantha Irby, Heidi Julavits, Catherine Lacy, Mario Vargas Llosa, Rebecca Makkai, Fernanda Melchor, Lorrie Moore, Jenny Odell, Curtis Sittenfeld, Clint Smith, Zadie Smith, Brandon Taylor, Colm Tóibín, and many, many more. At 85 titles, you may notice our 2023A list is a bit trimmer and more selective than in year's past. We wanted to make sure that our list comprises the books that we are truly anticipating the most—which is to say, we've carefully curated our selections to showcase the very best books coming out in the first half of 2023. We hope you enjoy! Love reading our Great Book Previews? Learn how you can support The Millions here. January Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor Part crime thriller and part saga of the powerful Wadia family, Age of Vice roams across India, from the dusty villages of Uttar Pradesh to the cauldron of New Delhi. Three lives intersect in this world of lavish estates, extravagant parties, drugs and seamy business deals: Ajay, the watchful family servant; Sunny, the playboy heir; and Neda, a journalist out to expose the consequences of corruption. The writing has authority. Kapoor, author of the novel Bad Character, grew up in northern India and has worked as a journalist in New Delhi. The result is an addictive, vivid spellbinder of a novel. —Bill Morris Decent People by De'Shawn Charles Winslow Winslow returns to the fictional Southern town of West Mills for a second time in this expertly-plotted and character-driven follow-up to his award-winning debut novel. In the 1970s, an investigation into a triple homicide reveals surprising and profoundly sad layers of reality for the townspeople of West Mills—the trauma and ramifications of segregation, class, deeply kept secrets, and underlying homophobia. A haunting, page-turning mystery, Decent People makes a must-read on anyone’s literary list. —Jianan Qian The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley In this debut novel, a perpetually single Black lawyer, Aretha, falls in love with Aaron, a coffee entrepreneur who shares a brownstone with a stable of bizarre roommates. When Aretha moves in with Aaron, she gets caught up in their household dramas, which range from illegal gun sales to half-baked schemes to prepare for the end of the world. It will not surprise people who’ve read Cauley's essays—or seen her work on The Daily Show, or read her excellent tweets—that The Survivalists is, according to Tom Perrotta, an “edgy” and “darkly funny” book. —Thom Beckwith Still Pictures by Janet Malcolm Malcolm was a master of reportage, able to dissect and decipher her subjects with startling precision. (Also one of my own writerly heroes.) She often mused on the relationship between journalist and subject; in much of her journalism, she judged her subjects from a cool distance. How, then, would she approach a memoir? What would a self-portrait by one of our most formidable portraitists look like? These were the questions that exhilarated me when I began Malcolm's posthumous memoir. Still Pictures is as much a look at Malcolm's own photos and memories as the nature of photography and memory, written with all her characteristic style and clarity. —Sophia M. Stewart The Half Known Life by Pico Iyer In this philosophical and theological travelog, Iyer searches the globe for paradise. Not for himself—he wants to understand the idea of paradise, that incentive and dream and goal that undergirds the world's religions. Maria Popova herself, the brilliant mind behind The Marginalian, has called Iyer "one of the most soulful and perceptive writers of our time" and I expect The Half Known Life will further cement that status. —SMS OK by Michelle McSweeney In this slim and lucid addition to the Object Lessons series, which explores the hidden lives of everyday objects, linguist and author Michelle McSweeney unpacks the phrase “OK,” coined 200 years ago and now ubiquitous in spoken English. As an object, “OK” reveals how technologies inscribe themselves into languages—originally, it was an acronym that stood for “all correct,” a phrase which marked some of the earliest printed newspapers as ready for publication. From there, McSweeney traces the word’s evolution through the present, illuminating the ways in which its meaning developed over time. —TB The 12th Commandment by Daniel Torday Torday presents a provocative and unexpected tale of contemporary Jewish life that owes less to Philip Roth and Saul Bellow than it does to Cynthia Ozick and Isaac Bashevis Singer. The 12th Commandment concerns the historical sect known as the Dönmeh, Turkish followers of a seventeenth-century Jewish pseudo-messiah who outwardly practice Islam but who are actually adherents of an esoteric kabbalistic faith. “Weird folk,” explains a character, “They’re like Jews and Muslims at the same time. Or something.” Unexpectedly set among an imagined group of Dönmeh in small-town Ohio, with a noirish murder plot driving the action, and The 12th Commandment will appeal to fans of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, but Torday’s unique imagination and vital vision are his own. —Ed Simon Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Céspedes, translated by Ann Goldstein The story begins when Valeria Cossati—a 43-year-old office worker, self-sacrificing wife, and mother of two—buys a thick black notebook and begins writing at night—her thoughts, experiences, and fury. What follows over the course of six months are reflections on motherhood and femininity in postwar Rome that were as urgent and revelatory in the 1950s, when the novel was originally published, as they are today in post-Roe America. In the words of Annie Ernaux: “Reading Alba de Céspedes was, for me, like breaking into an unknown universe.” —Jenny Wu Life on Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter by John Hendrickson I've been waiting for John to write this book since I first read his paradigm-shifting Atlantic article "What Joe Biden Can't Bring Himself to Say." Like Biden, John is a person who stutters. In Life on Delay, and with profound intelligence and insight, John examines his own stuttering life, as well as the lives of many other stutterers, to probe the many contradictions of disfluency. John has become something of a torchbearer in our community, and this book is going to be an essential contribution to the (currently very limited) literature of stuttering. I hate when people call certain books "important"—but this book is very important me, and will be important to a lot of people. We've been waiting a long time for a book like this. —SMS The Call of the Tribe by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by John King When I began my undergraduate studies, I was disappointed by how little nonfiction appeared on the syllabi of my Spanish literature classes. Then I encountered Llosa, a Nobel-winning nonfictioneer and intellectual heavyweight (and occasional novelist) who rose to prominence during the Latin American Boom. In The Call of the Tribe, he maps out the minds that shaped his own: Sartre and Adam Smith, Friedrich A. Hayek and Isaiah Berlin, and many more (mostly male) writers and thinkers. It's a pleasure—and a pleasurable challenge—to read Llosa on the roots of his ideology. —SMS The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women's Roles in Society by Eleanor Janega Ever since I visited the Cloisters for the first time earlier this year, I've been hungry to learn more about medieval life, and specifically women's place in it. Enter The Once and Future Sex, the subtitle of which quite directly addresses this yen of mine. Janega, a medievalist by training, makes middle-age sociology accessible, highlighting how archaic notions of femininity continue to shape modern womanhood in ways both subtle and overt. Beauty, sex, work, labor, motherhood, decorum—no aspect of women's lives goes unexplored in this rigorous study, which also highlights many of the era's subversive trailblazers. —SMS Black and Female by Tsitsi Dangarembga Zimbabwean writer Dangarembga explores the long shadow cast by imperialism in her own life, and the lives of all African people, in this volume of essays. The personal and political commingle (because, as all feminists know, they're one and the same) as Dangarembga excavates her own history and the history of her nation. The result is a clear-eyed look at what navigating life and art-making as a woman in Zimbabwe has taught her, as well as the possibilities and limits of a distinctly Black feminism, which she calls "the status quo’s worst nightmare." —SMS A Guest at the Feast by Colm Tóibín One of Ireland's greatest living novelists, Tóibín is known the world over for his fiction. That's why I'm so curious to read his new essay collection, to see how he transfers his mastery across genres. A (supposedly) great compliment is to be called a nonfiction writer with a "novelist's" sensibility—the implication being that nonfiction is best when it reads like fiction. (I disagree!) This isn't Tóibín's first foray into nonfiction (he's written books on Elizabeth Bishop; contemporary queer artists; and the fathers of famous Irish writers)—but it is one of his most intimate. This is clear from the book's outset, which features one of best opening lines I've read in a minute: "It all started with my balls." —SMS Vintage Contemporaries by Dan Kois I always love reading Dan Kois's criticism (if you haven't yet read him on Tár, please do yourself the favor—and prepare to have your mind blown) so I was thrilled to hear about his forthcoming novel, a coming-of-age set in New York City at the turn of the millennium that wrestles with art, friendship, and what it means to cultivate a creative life. Our very own Lydia Kiesling blurbed it and gave it what is in my book one of the ultimate compliments: "poignant without being treacly." A near-impossible literary feat—I can't wait to see (read?) Kois pull it off for myself. —SMS Your Driver Is Waiting by Priya Guns A retelling of the movie Taxi Driver featuring a ride-share driver? An incredible premise for a novel that explores work, class, and solidarity (or the lack thereof). Damani Krishanthan works for an Uber-like company, scraping by after her father dies during his shift at a fast-food restaurant. During a summer of uprising, she drives through throngs of protestors trying to make enough to cover rent. A relationship with a white wealthy protestor goes south, prompting a dramatic ending (considering its cinematic source material, I can only imagine). —Lydia Kiesling The Guest Lecture by Martin Riker Abby, a young economist, can't sleep the night before the talk she is scheduled to present tomorrow, optimism and John Maynard Keynes. A lapsed optimist struggling to support her family, she feels grossly unprepared to offer any insights into Keynes. With wry humor and true wisdom, Riker, co-founder and publisher of Dorothy, a Publishing Project, transforms one woman’s insomnia into an enchanting and playful exploration of literature, performance, and the life of the mind. —JQ After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz At the turn of the twentieth century, three queer women—Rina Faccio, Romaine Brooks, and Virginia Woolf among them—make the same decision: They take up their pens or paintbrushes to define their lives and their identities on their own terms. Taking cues from the Greek poet, After Sappho, Schwartz's Booker-longlisted debut novel, reimagines the intertwined voices of those pioneering women artists in the collective first-person, whose courage and struggles never cease to inspire and encourage those who come after. —JQ Hanging Out by Sheila Liming We’ve all heard the admonitions to slow down, drop out, resist the rush—but what does that actually look like? “Hanging out is about daring to do nothing much and, even more than that, about daring to do it in the company of others,” writes Liming in her treatise on the subject, the follow-up to her 2020 book What a Library Means to a Woman on Edith Wharton and book collections. Hanging Out, an endearing and revealing book, is well-timed, but as she notes, “we were having a hard time hanging out well before COVID-19 came along.” She makes a compelling case for us to get together. —Nick Ripatrazone Call and Response: Stories by Gothataone Moeng This debut story collection joins a chorus of literary voices rising out of contemporary Africa. Set in the author’s native village of Serowe, as well as in Gabarone, the thrumming capital of Botswana, these stories are spun from the struggles of women seeking to reconcile ancestral expectations with imported dreams—a girl who hides her sexual exploits from her family while her older brother flaunts his conquests; a young widow who ponders the custom of wearing mourning clothes for a year; a woman who returns from America, ashamed to have given up on the land of opportunity. The great Namwalli Serpell praised the collection for its "sharply observed vignettes," which together amount to a "beautiful" book full of "deep insight." —BM Black Empire by George S. Schuyler Originally published in serial form in the 1930s, Black Empire is the masterwork of George S. Schuyler, a journalist, Harlem Renaissance man, socialist-turned-arch-conservative, and creator of acid satires. This novel is the story of Dr. Henry Belsidus, a Black genius who sets out to cultivate a global network that will reclaim Africa from imperial powers and punish Europe and America for their crimes against the world’s Black population. Schuyler’s earlier novel, Black No More, is a satirical romp about a Black man who turns his skin white. In all his work, Schuyler work confronts an abiding and urgent moral quandary: How far should one go to bring justice to an unjust world? —BM February Where I'm Coming From by Barbara Brandon-Croft Drawn & Quarterly has never let me down, and its winning streak won’t be snapped by this collection from the first Black woman to have a nationally-syndicated comic strip. In the witty and groundbreaking "Where I’m Coming From," which ran from 1989 to 2005, nine Black girlfriends deliver insights and punchlines in equal measure, touching on politics, race, relationships, and everything in between. Tayari Jones says that Brandon-Croft’s work has “aged beautifully,” hailing the collection as “both ahead of its time and right on time.” —Evan Allgood Brutes by Dizz Tate This surreal and ambitious debut novel, written partially in first-person plural and billed as “The Virgin Suicides meets The Florida Project,” follows a clan of teenaged girls in Falls Landing, Florida, as they grapple with the disappearance of the local preacher's daughter. Brutes’s adolescent cast, time-jumping narrative, and promise of violence evoke the hit show Yellowjackets. Mariana Enríquez calls it “a beautiful and deeply strange novel, full of dread and longing.” —EA City of Blows by Tim Blake Nelson I love movies, but Hollywood—both the city and the industry that undergirds it—has never much interested me. Honestly, celebrity culture in America baffles me. But when a Hollywood insider and an accomplished playwright—and, not to mention, a fine actor—decides to satirize the toxic culture of Tinsel Town, I’m in. Nelson's debut novel follows four men fighting for control of a script and a place in a rapidly transforming Hollywood. There’s something sustaining in a story that shows how beautiful people can be just as petty—just as ugly—as the rest of us. —Il’ja Rákoš Couplets by Maggie Millner Lovers of horny, rhyming poetry rejoice: Millner’s “love story in poems,” arrives a week before Valentine’s Day, just in time to tie your brain to its bedposts. Kink and queerness, power and polyamory—this debut by the senior editor of the Yale Review has it all. Read an excerpt in BOMB to see why Elif Batuman, Garth Greenwell, and Leslie Jamison are all head over heels for this clever, seductive story of coming out and coming of age. —EA The Black Guy Dies First by Robin R. Means Coleman and Mark H. Harris This collaboration between Coleman, a scholar, and Harris, a journalist and film critic, explores the history of Black horror films since 1968. Named for the well-known cinematic trope, the book spans cult classics like Spider Baby up to commercial and critical successes like Get Out. According to Kirkus Reviews, the book is written with “keen observation, a satirical eye, and a genuine love for the subject.” —Edan Lepucki Big Swiss by Jen Beagin "A sex therapist's transcriptionist falls in love with a client while listening to her sessions"—that was all I needed to hear to get excited about Beagin's third novel. Throw in blurbs from Melissa Border and A Touch of Jen author Beth Morgan, and I was all but convinced that Big Swiss will be weird and horny and unfettered in all the best ways. "Pick it up because you like cheese," Morgan urges, "stay for the brilliant sentences." —SMS Culture: The Story of Us, From Cave Art to K-Pop by Martin Puchner So many books these days are described as being "sweeping histories"; Culture, which promises in its subtitle to take us from our most primitive artistic impulses all the way to the machinery of modern-day fandom. But what intrigues me most about Puchner's latest isn't its scope—it's its driving question: "What good are the arts?" In my more hopeless moments, this question bubbles up inside me, and I'm chomping at the bit to hear Puchner's answer, grounded in history and informed by cultures around the world. —SMS Dyscalculia by Camonghne Felix Following her poetry collection Build Yourself a Boat, which landed a spot on the National Book Award longlist, Camonghne Felix makes her nonfiction debut with this memoir, which charts a life-changing breakup and its many consequences for her life. When the author ends up in the hospital, she draws a parallel between her troubles as an adult and her childhood diagnosis of dyscalculia, a condition which makes it difficult to learn math or estimate place value. As she starts to tally her romantic miscalculations, she asks a wide-ranging question: who gets the right to freely express their own pain? —TB All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me by Patrick Bringley A former New Yorker staffer turned museum guard is a pretty compelling tagline, to be certain, and Bringley delivers in this intimate and philosophical debut memoir—he muses on the artworks, coworkers, and museumgoers that surround him. Adding poignancy to the memoir's conceit, his observations are all permeated with profound grief as he reels from the death of his older brother. Bringly brings the Met to life on a grand scale and granular level. —NR The Wife of Willesden by Zadie Smith For her first foray into playwriting, novelist and essayist Smith reimagines Chaucer’s Canterbury Tale about the Wife of Bath for twenty-first century, northwest London. Alvita, a Jamaican-born British woman in her early fifties, tells her life story to strangers in a pub. In its review, The Guardian calls it “a celebration of community and local legends, of telling a good story and living a life worth telling. Not bad for an original text that’s 600 years old.” —EL Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World by Malcolm Harris I went to college in the Bay Area, where the allure of Silicon Valley was palpable. My classmates posted about their internships at Twitter and Microsoft, wore t-shirts with emblazoned with the logos of Google and Linkedin, and went on to get jobs with six-figure starting salaries. I remembered my dad's quaint stories of growing up in nearby Los Altos and struggled to reconcile that history with the present. Harris's comprehensive history of Silicon Valley, from railroad capitalism to free love to big tech, does just that. Palo Alto spans centuries in order to thoroughly demystifying the region's economics and unearth its enduring legacy of settler colonialism. Users by Colin Winnette I worked for years as a consultant at American-based IT companies with teams in Kyiv, and among those Ukrainians I knew who were handling the code, it was rare to find anyone who worshipped Steve Jobs, loved tech, or saw STEM work as anything particularly noble. No true believers in panaceas or "essential" tech. Here, in the fictional world of Winnette’s latest novel, we encounter a strong critique and timely caution that my Kyiv ITshnyks certainly understood well: the devastation that awaits when we entrust the mechanisms we’ve built to do our thinking, our feeling, and our living for us. —IR I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai In her follow-up to her 2018 novel The Great Believers, a Pulitzer and National Book Award finalist, Makkai brings us to a New Hampshire boarding school. Film professor Bodie Kane has been eager to forget her four awful years there, which included a murder of a classmate by the athletic trainer. But when she's brought back to campus to teach a two-week course, everything she thought she knew about the case is thrown into question. Makkai plays with true-crime tropes to deliver a literary exploration of friendship. —Marie Myung-Ok Lee Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears by Michael Schulman Michael Shulman is one of the great profile-writers of our time, and one of our best writers, period. (His New Yorker profiles of Jeremy Strong, Bo Burnahm, and Adam Driver long ago took up permanent residence in my brain.) What Schulman, a student of personality, could accomplish in a study of the Oscars—that most official of personality contests—is limitless. It's also just a perfect opportunity to spill so much celebrity gossip. I imagine devouring this book poolside, while sipping on a blue drink; a big umbrella overhead, a little umbrella in my glass. Slime by Susanne Wedlich, translated by Ayca Turkoglu  Primordial slime has long been considered a cornerstone of life on Earth; without it, the natural world would be unrecognizable. Slimy substances like mucous and slobber are also common features of fictional monsters in popular culture from Lovecraft to Alien. Munich-based science and nature journalist Susanne Wedlich’s ode to the semi-liquids that hold our world together—and our minds in awe—reminds us “we are sticky beings living in a sticky place” (TLS), whether we like it or not. —JW March Monstrilio by Gerardo Sámano Córdova What lengths would you go to get back someone you've loved and lost? Just for a bit, to look in their eyes one more time, or tell them what needed to be told? But play that possibility out to its inevitable conclusion and it’s difficult to envision anything good coming from it. In  Córdova’s horror debut, a grieving mother in Mexico City goes to unimaginable extremes to bring her late 11-year-old son back to life, only to discover that there are worse things than death. Grief, she learns, is not something to be trifled with, or worse, avoided. —IR Francisco by Alison Mills Newman Though it garnered plaudits from Toni Morrison when it was first published in 1974, Newman's autobiographical novel has long been out of print. Now, a reissue by New Directions—with a new foreword by Saidiya Hartman—promises to introduce a new generation of readers to Newman’s innovative and genre-bending story, which draws on the author’s experience as a young actress in 1960s Hollywood. —TB The Fifth Wound by Aurora Mattia In her new novel, the Mattia reinvents the roman à clef with a magical realist memoir that puts the dusty genre of autofiction to shame. Sifting from multiple narratives—and dimensions—The Fifth Wound is a romance, a meditation on transphobic violence, and a speculative tale of time travel, ecstatic visionaries, and mystical union. Transcending the limiting confines of not just society, but reality as well, and Mattia’s novel promises the reader an experience that recalibrates simplistic notions of truth and fiction, reality and illusion.  —ES Saving Time by Jenny Odell I love books that force me to recognize or reconsider the structure of existence—and Odell’s book does just this, in a way that's both enlightening and generative. Her previous book, How to Do Nothing, was a runaway hit about what happens when we subvert the temporal expectations that are placed upon us: “Letting go of one overwhelming rhythm, you invite the presence of others. Perhaps more important, you remember that the arrangement is yours to make.” Odell demonstrates how it's never too late to save the time we have left. —NR The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe In 1958, at the age of 27, Rona Jaffe published her first novel, a revolutionary portrait of three young women employed at a New York publishing house. Renowned for its frankness and honesty, particularly in its depictions of sexual harassment, The Best of Everything is, per Michele Moses, “what you would get if you took Sex and the City and set it inside Mad Men’s universe.” Now, for its 65th anniversary, Penguin Classics is reissuing the novel, complete with a new introduction by New Yorker staff writer Rachel Syme, who is the perfect voice to prime us for a retro romp through postwar New York and its attendant glitzy patina. —TB Raving by McKenzie Wark Wark's entry into Duke University Press's Practices series, which spotlights the activities that make us human, invites us into the underground queer and trans rave scene of New York City. A bombastic collision of sound and movement, raving is, to Wark, the ideal activity for "this era of diminishing futures." An avid raver herself, she blends academic analysis with her own first-hand accounts, all relayed with sensual, staccato prose. "Some come to serve looks; some come to leave their sweat on the dance floor," she writes. "I’m the latter kind. I want to be animate and animated on the floor." —SMS Still Life with Bones by Alexa Hagerty From 1960 to 1996, more than 200,000 Guatemalans were killed, and tens of thousands more disappeared, after an American-backed coup gave rise to a steady march of genocidal dictators. Decades later, anthropologists like Alexa Hagerty are working to exhume and examine the dead, piecing together their bodies and their stories in an urgent but potentially quixotic quest for resolution, and attempting to bring a sense of humanity to the forensic sciences. —EA How to Think Like a Woman by Regan Penaluna In her first book, journalist Penaluna, who has a PhD in philosophy, explores the oft-forgotten and under-taught feminist philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Mary Astell, Damaris Masham, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Catherine Cockburn. Blending biography, criticism, and memoir, Penaluna explores the lives and beliefs of these thinkers, as well as the ways women—past and present—have been devalued within philosophy, academia, and history. How  to Think Like a Woman serves as an alternate philosophical canon, where women and their intellect are deeply and rigorously examined. —Carolyn Quimby Y/N by Esther Yi “Y/N,” short for “[Your/Name],” refers to a type of fanfiction that allows readers to insert their own names into brackets in the story, so as to imagine themselves in romantic scenarios with popular idols. In Esther Yi’s debut novel, our narrator devotes herself to writing fanfic about a K-pop star named Moon. When Moon suddenly retires and retreats from the spotlight, the narrator embarks on a transnational search that unveils the absurd innards of a Korean entertainment company, as well as the loneliness of modern life and the various fantasies we enact to try to escape it. Yi, a Leipzig-based writer, has earned comparisons to Elif Batuman, Thomas Pynchon, Yoko Tawada, and Marie NDiaye. —JW How Not to Kill Yourself: A Portrait of a Suicidal Mind by Clancy Martin Clancy Martin has tried to die by suicide more than 10 times. In How Not to Kill Yourself, he speaks frankly about these attempts and the thoughts that fueled them. In probing his own experiences, he inevitably comes to larger conclusions about the nature of the self-destructive mind and the philosophy of suicide. He also turns to other writers who have attempted suicide and written about it, from Yiyun Li to David Foster Wallace. Written with surprising tenderness and humor, this memoir-cum-critical-inquiry is a perspective-shifting study. Biography of X by Catherine Lacy With a title that recalls both Alex Haley’s biography of Malcolm X and Gertrude Stein’s consideration of her partner Alice B. Toklas, Lacey audaciously explores the contingencies of identity, memory, and history in her latest experimental novel. Lacey’s novel takes place in an alternative history where the American South separated from the United States and was governed as a fascist theocracy only recently being reabsorbed into the wider nation. Ostensibly The Biography of X is about the titular unknown, a celebrated but mysterious artist, and her widow’s account of that life as much as can be assembled. But with cameos by such twentieth-century luminaries as Sontag and Bowie, the novel is also a biography of American art and theory which understands that sometimes history is best understood at a slant. —ES The Last Catastrophe by Allegra Hyde This collection of 15 stories by the author of Eleutheria continues Hyde’s interest in humanity grappling with climate change. Alexandra Kleeman writes that these speculative stories are “dazzling, inventive, and glinting with dark humor.” Spaceships, AI, zombies, and body-switching abound. I, for one, am most excited to read the story about the girl growing a unicorn horn! —EL The New Earth by Jess Row A century which began with 9/11, and has so far seen economic collapse, a ground war in Europe, a global pandemic, and the rise of neo-fascism is painfully interesting. Jess Row’s latest novel interlays these interesting times on a family drama among the privileged Wilcoxes of the Upper East Side, from 2000 to 2018. The global perspective becomes synonymous with the vantage point of daughter Winter Wilcox, who on the eve of her wedding must grapple not just with her estranged family, but the ways in which her personal tragedies from years coincide with both parental secrets and historical injustices. “Disguising your origins is a deeply American impulse,” Row wrote in 2014, “but that doesn’t make it any less compromising,” a theme heartily interrogated in The New Earth.  —ES Chlorine by Jade Song Song's debut novel revolves around high-schooler Ren Yu, a competitive swimmer who spends her days in the pool. Her immigrant parents expect her to train hard and secure a college scholarship, but she aspires to transform into a mermaid, freeing herself from the terrestrial world. A spiky, sapphic coming-of-age that embraces fantasy and horror to explore girlhood and its discontents. —JQ In Search of a Beautiful Freedom by Farah Jasmine Griffin A new volume of collected essays both new and previously published by Farah Jasmine Griffin, the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia. Following her last book Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature, these new and previously unpublished essays range in topic from Covid to the efforts to ban Toni Morrison to the life work of Odetta. Griffin's insights into Black music, feminism, and literature are unparalleled. —LK Affinities by Brian Dillon When I read Dillon's previous books, Essayism and Suppose a Sentence, I considered them a diptych: two close looks at two literary forms (the essay and the sentence) that were driven by what Dillon himself calls his own "affinity." It turns out, Essayism and Suppose a Sentence were really the first two entries in a triptych! His latest book, Affinities, centers on images, from photographs to paintings to migraine auras. Why do images make us feel the way they do? Why are we drawn to certain images over other ones? Dillon is one of my favorite writers, thinkers, and close-readers, and I can't wait to read him on the pleasures of looking. —SMS Above Ground by Clint Smith I long for a literature—especially a poetry—of joy; life is too short and bland without it. Smith’s new poetry collection teems with images of love and fatherhood. Great poetry comes in many modes and subjects, but there’s something unique about a book of verse that makes me want to hold my own children a little tighter, as I think of his description of delivering a bear hug: “my arms are still / open like a universe / in need of a planet / to make it worth / something.” Juxtaposed with lines of grief and recognition—“men attempting / to unlearn the anger on their father’s / tongues, the heat in their hands”—Smith’s songs of joy are that much sweeter. —NR Ada's Room by Sharon Dodua Otoo, translated by Jon Cho-Polizzi Otoo's debut novel is about four women, all with the same name: Ada, a mother in fifteenth-century West Africa; Ada Lovelace, the real-life programmer in Victorian England; Ada, a prisoner in a concentration camp in 1945; and Ada, a young Ghanian woman in present day. As Otoo connects their narratives across centuries, the linear confines of history break down and a profound sorority comes into focus. R.O. Kwon calls this one "thrillingly, astonishingly original." —SMS April This Is Not Miami by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes Taking place in and around the Mexican city of Veracruz, this collection of crónicas—narrative nonfiction pieces that blend reportage with novelistic structures—explores the criminal underworld, shedding light on social problems that manifest in gory headlines. As in her novels Paradais and Hurricane Season, Melchor draws empathetic portraits of deeply unsympathetic figures, forcing her readers to understand the mindsets of monstrous characters. —TB Chain Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah Ever since the moment I finished Adjei-Brenyah’s surreal, satirical, and original debut story collection, Friday Black, I’ve been not-so-patiently waiting for whatever he wrote next. In his upcoming debut novel, two female gladiators fight to the death for their freedom on the hugely popular and controversial TV show, Chain-Gang All Stars, which airs on CAPE (Criminal Action Penal Entertainment). With his sharp eye for satire and reverence for humanity, Adjei-Brenyah’s latest explores the exploitation, violence, and false promises of the prison industrial complex, capitalism, and the country itself. —CQ Work-Life Balance by Aisha Franz, translated by Nicholas Houde This graphic novel, which was originally a comic series published by Colorama, concerns three friends who, disillusioned with their work lives, seek help from the same therapist. Franz, who lives in Berlin, was nominated for a Los Angeles Times book prize for her previous book, Shit is Real, which the Guardian called “a wise and funny journey through loneliness and confusion.” Her latest sounds just as promising. —EL Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe The latest book by scholar of English literature and Black Studies Christina Sharpe takes the form of a series of 248 notes on history, art, literature, and life whose meanings accumulate over the course of nearly 400 pages. At the center of the resulting polyphonic portrait of Black existence is the figure of Ida Wright Sharpe, the author’s mother. Saidiya Hartman calls Ordinary Notes "an exquisite text" that "demands everything of the reader and, in turn, offers us a vocabulary for living.” —JW A Living Remedy by Nicole Chung Chung's bestselling memoir All You Can Ever Know, published in 2018, cemented her as one of this generation's great chroniclers of family, both adoptive and biological: its limits and possibilities, what it means, how it shapes us. Her follow-up, which follows Chung as she mourns her parents and navigates the institutional inequities baked into American society, promises to be just as poignant. Blurbers Megha Majumdar, Julie Otsuka, Imani Perry, and Bryan Washington certainly think so. —SMS Second Star: And Other Reasons for Lingering by Philippe Delerm, translated by Jody Gladding A runaway hit in France, Second Star is a collection of vignettes about life's smallest and simplest moments, from washing your windows to peeling a clementine. With evocative descriptions of taste, touch, and sound, Delerm zeroes in on the sensations and pleasures that, while often overlooked or taken for granted, can make us feel most alive. Linger in the moment, he says, stay a while—be here, now. —SMS Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld  I first encountered Curtis Sittenfeld in high school, when my dad's then-girlfriend gifted me a copy of Prep. It was smart and sexy and felt like a portal into womanhood, which I was on the precipice of. Sittenfeld knows how to write romantic comedy without ever slipping into the saccharine, the chivalrous, the cliche. (Also, Brandon Taylor is a fan!) So I can't wait for her new rom-com, about a comedy writer whose decision to swear off love is rocked when she falls for a pop star. —SMS Sea Change by Gina Chung Chung's debut centers on thirty-something Ro who feels stalled in her life—heartbroken after a breakup, father missing, mother remote, friends drifting away. She's also stagnating at her job at a mall aquarium, where one of her favorite sea creatures (and last remaining link to her father), an octopus named Dolores, is about to be sold to a wealthy investor intent on moving her to a private collection. Joseph Han called Ro one of his favorite Korean American characters of all time. —MML The One by Julia Argy Argy’s debut novel, about a woman who’s a contestant on a Bachelor-style dating reality show, has garnered some killer blurbs. Julie Buntin writes, “I could not stop reading Julia Argy’s smart, funny, and tender debut novel about falling in love and finding oneself on and offscreen,” and Claire Messud calls it “riveting, astute and darkly comic.” —EL Without Children by Peggy O'Donnell Heffington As a mother of three myself, I’m interested in why people become parents—or don’t. In Without Children, Heffington, a historian of gender, explores the long history of women who did not become mothers, for a variety of reasons. Situating what seems to some to be a modern phenomenon within a larger historical context, this one seems like an essential read. Ada Calhoun deems it a “timely, refreshingly open-hearted study.” —EL The Double Life of Benson Yu by Kevin Chong I hear the word “metafiction” and I usually figure I’m in for a cerebral workout and probably a headache. While Chong’s story of a graphic novelist focusing on his art in an attempt to process his difficult youth is indeed a workout, it’s also a hugely engaging, headache-free read about a world, Chinatown, and a creative outlet, graphic arts, that I know nothing about. Yes, there is a lot of darkness in this story, episodes that could present challenges to some readers, but ultimately the heft of this novel lies in its powerful reminder that unless we confront our demons, we’ll never exorcise them. —IR Arrangements in Blue by Amy Key An essay collection about unpartnered life set to the soundtrack of Joni Mitchell's Blue—so thoughtful of Amy Key to write a book specifically and exclusively for me! Looking back at her past romantic longings and collisions, Key considers the (inflated?) value of romantic love and finds her contradictory feelings on the matter reflected in Mitchell's lyrics. There's nothing poor-me about Arrangements in Blue; in Key's hands, solitary life becomes more capacious—and more complicated—than I ever thought possible. —SMS The Ugly History of Beautiful Things by Katy Kelleher In this deeply researched collection of essays, Paris Review contributor Katy Kelleher explores the hidden histories of our favorite luxury goods, revealing how even the most beautiful objects have dark, unsavory backgrounds. In a blend of historical, scientific and autobiographical writing, Kelleher explains why some red lipstick contains beetle shells, why certain perfumes include rodent musk, and why a fancy class of dishware is made with the ashes of cow bones. Along with helping us understand how these objects came to signify beauty, Kelleher reveals the price workers pay to bring them to us – and suggests a few ways we can ethically appreciate their products. —TB May Written on Water by Eileen Chang It is no exaggeration to say Eileen Chang has shaped our perceptions of modern cities in China. Before her, big cities were monstrous, with myriads of people often seen as sordid sinners. Chang portrayed Shanghai and Hong Kong as the intersections of tradition and modernity, of the East and the West. The pleasures of modernity embody new ways of life. The subtleties of everyday life signify people’s pursuit of happiness. Chang is sharp, rebellious, and unique. You will find even her examination of Shanghainese food eerily resonating. —JQ Homebodies by Tembe Denton-Hurst  When Mickey Hayward loses her coveted media job, she pens a scathing letter about the racism and sexism she's encountered in the industry. It's met with silence and soon forgotten, until a media scandal catapults the letter—and Mickey—back into the spotlight. This witty take on fame, media, and the institutions that rule our lives, Homebodies already garnered blurbs from Danielle Evans, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, and Bryan Washington. —SMS Quietly Hostile by Samantha Irby If you’ve read Irby’s previous collections, or even skimmed her Instagram, you’re likely waiting for her next book of hilarious essays. This one sounds promising: it has a skunk on the front and covers everything from working in Hollywood, to getting a “deranged pandemic dog” (per the jacket copy), to being turned away from a restaurant for being dressed inappropriately. I can’t wait! —EL Dances by Nicole Cuffy At the age of 22, Cece Cordell is catapulted to fame when she becomes the first Black principal dancer in the history of the storied New York City Ballet. But her achievement doesn’t feel right, and she she soon embarks on a journey to find a missing older brother— and the pieces of herself that have been devoured by the voracious machinery of the highly competitive ballet world. This debut novel by the author of a decorated work of short fiction, 2018's Atlas of the Body, is an examination of the physical and spiritual costs all artists must pay in the pursuit of their art. —BM Monsters by Claire Dederer How to separate the art from the artist? A question I—and most cultural critics—have been wrestling with for a long time now. In Monsters, Claire Dederer takes a stab. Inspired by her Paris Review essay, "What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?," Dederer takes on Hemingway and Picasso, Miles Davis and Roman Polanski, to construct a deeply personal theory of art, genius, and cruelty, written from the perspective of both a critic and a fan. I've been counting down the days to this one for a while. —SMS Dykette by Jenny Fran Davis In her blurb for Davis's debut novel, the writer Samantha Hunt tells me everything I needed to know: "Like a tightly rolled spliff passed around the room," she writes, "you will inhale Dykette." Following three queer couples on a 10-day country getaway, Dykette takes on desire, debauchery, and destruction through a distinctly queer—and propulsively entertaining—lens. —SMS Avidly Reads Screen Time by Phillip Maciak Phillip Maciak is one of the best TV critics alive right now, full stop. Whether he's writing about Girls or Station Eleven or Bluey, his criticism is always characterized by wit, insight, and a remarkable propensity for close-reading. So yes, I was over the moon to learn about his new book of cultural criticism and history, Avidly Reads Screen Time, about how we define screens and how they define us. There are three Mad Men screen caps within the book's first 30 pages, so, yeah, it's gonna be ridiculously good. —SMS Thinning Blood by Leah Myers Leah Myers is likely the last official member of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe as a consequence of blood quantum laws. In a work of memoir and family excavation of her ancestors lives' in the Pacific Northwest, Myers explores the meaning of legacy, documentation, belonging, and weaves between and together her own life, the lives of her ancestors, and the hypotheticals of future generations.  —LK King: A Life by Jonathan Eig Martin Luther King Jr. has, at this point, been flattened into an icon. The Selma to Montgomery march, "I Have a Dream," his assassination—this is what his life has been boiled down for many of us, and in the American imagination as a whole. King the leader, the orator, the pastor, the martyr—what about King the man? Eig's forthcoming tome on King, the first full biography in decades, contains new research and shines a fresh light on King's life, relationships, and interiority. —SMS A Life of One's Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again by Joanna Biggs I've recently realized that I will read just about any book of nonfiction that has the word "women" in the title. A Life of One's Own is no exception, though the draw certainly does not end at its title. Biggs's latest combine memoir, criticism, and biography (my favorite literary concoction) to study how women writers across the centuries—Plath, Woolf, Morrison, et al.— have carved out freedom for themselves in their lives and work. (I suspect this one will be a great companion to the aforementioned How to Think Like a Woman.) —SMS The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor Everyone’s favorite Booker Prize shortlister, national bestseller, Story Prize winner, Henry James prefacer, litcrit-newsletter purveyor, tweet-sender, and sweater-enjoyer Brandon Taylor, returns in May 2023 with The Late Americans. Like his acclaimed 2020 novel Real Life, The Late Americans is set in a small midwestern college town; also like Real Life, it is more accurately set in its young characters’ exquisitely sensitive and private psyches. Its three protagonists, and a larger constellation of midwestern eccentrics, artists, and academics, confront and provoke one another in a volatile year of self-discovery leading to a trip to a cabin where they bid goodbye to their former lives—a moment of reckoning that leaves each of them irrevocably altered.  —Adam O'Fallon Price The Lost Journals of Sacajewea by Debra Magpie Earling Earling reimagines the well-trodden tale of Sacajewea and her role in the fateful expedition of Lewis and Clark in this historical novel. Endowed agency, authority, and interiority, Earling's Sacajewea rewrites the version of herself handed down through American history. Her life before the expedition comes into vivid focus, as do her complicated feelings about her role in charting the course for American imperialism. Night of the Living Rez author Morgan Talty praises this "transcendental work of literature" as "striking" and "elegant." —SMS On Women by Susan Sontag, edited by David Rieff Susan Sontag, Merve Emre—the collab of the century? I'll read anything by either writer, so I will of course be reading this. Sontag's takes on feminism, sexuality, beauty, fascism, aging, and more are the focus of this seven-essay collection, introduced by Emre and edited by Sontag's son David Rieff. Always drawn to the grey, the murky, the complicated, here Sontag considers the ubiquitous, amorphous forces that shape women's lives with her characteristic curiosity and authority. —SMS Lesbian Love Story by Amelia Possanza In her debut memoir, Brooklynite Possanza dives into the archives to recover the stories of twentieth-century New York lesbians. Sifting through records she finds role models and cautionary tales, juicy gossip and heart-wrenching regret. Writing with empathy, wit, and imagination, Possanza constructs a personal, political, and romantic history of lesbian life and love. —SMS June Where Are Your Boys Tonight?: The Oral History of Emo's Mainstream Explosion 1999-2008 by Chris Payne Emo exploded just as I gained consciousness as a human being with aesthetic tastes. For me, and many of my peers, emo music was a formative force in our lives, enunciating the frustration and darkness that many of us found ourselves newly harboring as adolescents. So I can't wait to read Chris Payne's oral history of the genre, which uses interviews with My Chemical Romance, Paramore, Panic! at the Disco, Fall Out Boy, and more to reconstruct emo's meteoric ascent and profound cultural footprint. —SMS Wannabe: Reckoning with the Pop Culture That Shapes Me by Aisha Harris Harris, host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, always has a take. Movies, TV, music—she's got an opinion and she's excited to tell you about it. Adapting her radio presence into book form, Wannabe sees Harris turning her talents for critique and criticism inward, looking at the media that has shaped her life and examining its effects. From Clueless to the Spice Girls, New Girl to Chance the Rapper, Harris teases out the connections between her identity and her love of pop culture with wit and elan. —SMS Rivermouth: A Chronicle of Language, Faith, and Migration by Alejandra Oliva Oliva is a writer, translator and immigration activist who has translated for people seeking asylum along the US-Mexico border since 2016. In this work of memoir and journalism, which won a 2022 Whiting Nonfiction Award, Oliva describes her experiences of translation, describes her own Mexican-American family's relationship to the border, and interrogates notions of citizenship and belonging. —LK I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home by Lorrie Moore Moore's first novel since 2009's A Gate at the Stairs, I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home (that title!) is a ghost story set in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries about grief, devotion, and narrative. I'll be honest, I have no idea what this book is actually going to be about (the descriptive copy sums up the plot thusly: "A teacher visiting his dying brother in the Bronx. A mysterious journal from the nineteenth century stolen from a boarding house. A therapy clown and an assassin, both presumed dead, but perhaps not dead at all . . .") but the intrigue makes it all the more anticipated. —SMS Directions to Myself: A Memoir of Four Years by Heidi Julavits  My first introduction to Julavits was 2015's The Folded Clock, which I read the week after I first moved to New York, back in 2020. I've been waiting for her next book ever since. It's finally here—Directions to Myself sees Julavits studying what she calls "the end times of childhood." She writes about her son's upbringing as well as her own to find answers about motherhood, family life, and growing up. George Saunders calls it "an absolute stunner." I predict I'll feel the same. —SMS [millions_email]

Ten Ways to Lose Your Literature

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“I have built a monument more durable than bronze.” — Horace 1.Inconceivable that a man with a disposition like Ben Jonson’s wouldn’t take an offered drink, and so it can be expected that the poet would enjoy a few when he completed his four-hundred mile, several months long walk from London to Edinburgh in the summer of 1618. Mounted as a proto-publicity stunt, Jonson’s walk was a puckish journey between the island’s two kingdoms, where once the Poet Laurette was in view of the stolid, black-stoned Edinburgh Castle upon its craggy green hill he’d be hosted by his Scottish equivalent, William Drummond of Hawthornden. At a dinner on September 26th, the bill for victuals was an astonishing (for the time) £221 6s 4d. Imagine the verse composed at that dinner, the lines jotted onto scraps or belted out as revelries, the lost writing which constitutes the far larger portion of any author’s engagement with words. Also his engagement with ale and sack, for it was Jonson’s loose tongue that led to a discussion about a different type of literature lost to posterity, when he confessed that one of their poetic colleagues, a Reader of Divinity at Lincoln’s Inn named Dr. John Donne, had decades before attempted a scurrilous mock-epic entitled Metempsychosis; or, The Progress of the Soule. Drawing its title from a Pythagorean doctrine that’s roughly similar to reincarnation, Donne’s Metempsychosis is a poem wherein he sings the “progress of a deathless soul, /Whom Fate, which God made, but doth not control, /Placed in most shapes.” He abandoned the project some 520 lines later. Drummond recorded that Jonson had said that the “conceit of Donne’s transformation… was that he sought the soul of the Apple which Eve pulled, and thereafter made it the soul of a Bitch, then of a she-wolf, and so of a woman.” Written before Donne converted to Protestantism, Metempsychosis was a parody of the Reformation, whereby the “soul” of the forbidden fruit would migrate through various personages in history, contaminating them with its malevolence. Jonson told Drummond that “His general purpose was to have brought in all the bodies of the Heretics from the soul of Cain,” perhaps moving through other villains from Haman to Judas. As it was, Donne mostly charted the apple’s soul through various animal permutations, ending with Cain rather than starting with him. It seems that Donne feared his own mind, and the inexorable logic that drove his poem to a conclusion which was unacceptable. Donne “wrote but one sheet, and now since he was made a Doctor he repented highly and seeketh to destroy all his poems.” Jonson thought that Donne’s intent was to have the final manifestation of that evil spirit appear in the guise of John Calvin. Others have identified an even more politically perilous coda to Metempsychosis, when the at-the-time staunchly Catholic Donne imagined that the “great soul which here amongst us now/Doth dwell, and moves that hand, and tongue, and brow… (For ‘tis the crown, and last strain of my song)” and assumed that the poet was speaking of Elizabeth I. Biographer John Stubb notes in John Donne: The Reformed Soul that Metempsychosis was “a politically directed piece of writing,” which is the biggest reason why none of you will ever read the entire poem. Donne himself wrote to a friend of his that there must be “an assurance upon the religion of your friendship that no copy shall be taken for any respect.” Metempsychosis is one way of losing your words. Literature as fragment, literature as rough draft, literature as the discarded. The history of writing is also the shadow history of the abandoned, a timeline of false-starts and of aborted attempts. What Donne wrote of Metempsychosis is, even in its stunted form, the longest poem which the lyricist ever penned, and yet it’s a literary homunculus, never brought to fruition. Never burnt upon the pyres by his critics either, because it would never be completed. 2.This is a syllabus of all which you shall never read: Jane Austen’s Sanditon, which exists only in outline form written in 1817, the year its author died of Addison’s disease, and that promised to tell the narrative of Sir Edward Denham whose “great object in life was to be seductive.” John Milton’s epic about Merlin entitled The Arthuriad. Over 2/3rds of the work of Aristotle, with all that survives composed of lecture notes. A thundering abolitionist speech delivered by the congressman Abraham Lincoln on May 29, 1856, where one observer said that he spoke “like a giant inspired.” Isle of the Cross by Herman Melville, which told the tale of romance between the Nantucket maiden Agatha Hatch Robertson and a shipwrecked sailor and crypto-bigamist. Melville explained in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne that Isle of the Cross concerned “the great patience & endurance, & resignedness of the women of the island in submitting so uncomplainingly to the long, long absences of their sailor husbands” (Rejected by publishers; no record ). A series of versified narratives of Aesop penned by Socrates, the philosopher famed for despising writing. Hypocritical though Socrates may have been, he inspired Plato to burn all of the poems he wrote, and to argue for the banning of such trifles in The Republic. Sacred scripture has its absences as well, for the Bible references any number of ostensibly divine books which are to be found nowhere today. The Book of the Covenant mentioned in Exodus 24:7, The Book of the Wars of the Lord cited in Numbers 21:14, Acts of Uzziah whose authority is checked at Chronicles 26:22, and the evocatively titled Sayings of the Seers, which is called upon at Chronicles 33:19. Stuart Kelly, author of The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You’ll Never Read, notes of the Bible that it is “A sepulcher of possible authors, a catafalque of contradictory texts.” Scripture is a “library, but one in ruins.” Scholars know that there are, for example, a Gospel of Perfection and even more arrestingly a Gospel of Eve, neither of which made the final cut or whose whereabouts are known today. Of the sacred books of the oracular Roman Sibyllines, not a single hexameter survives. Concerning sublime Sappho, she who was celebrated as the tenth muse, only one complete lyric endures. Nor are Socrates and Aristotle the only Greek philosophers for whom posterity records virtually none of their original writings; the great Cynic Diogenes of Sinope, who lived in an urn, masturbated in the Agora, and told Alexander the Great that the only thing the ruler of the world could do for him is get out of the light, supposedly wrote several manifestos, none of which still exists.   In 1922 a suitcase filled with Ernest Hemingway’s papers, including the draft of a finished World War I novel, was stolen from Paris’ Gare de Lyon Metro station. A few decades later and the Marxist theorist Walter Benjamin fled towards the Spanish border after the Nazis invaded France, with a briefcase containing a manuscript. He’d commit suicide in Portbou, Spain in fear that the SS was following; when his confidant Hannah Arendt arrived in America, she tried to find Benjamin’s book, but the draft is seemingly lost forever. Lord Byron’s manuscripts weren’t misplaced, but were burned at the urging of his Scottish publisher John Murray, who was horrified by the wanton sexuality in the famed rake’s autobiography, not least of which may have been a confession of an incestuous relationship with his sister. Nineteenth-century critic William Gifford said that the poet’s recollections were “fit only for a brothel and would have damned Lord Byron to everlasting infamy.” Franz Kafka desired that the entirety of his unpublished corpus be destroyed by his friend Max Brod, writing that “whatever you happen to find, in the way of notebooks, manuscripts, letters, my own and other people’s, sketches and so on, is to be burned unread to the last page.” Unfortunately for Kafka, but to literature’s benefit, Brod turned out to be a terrible friend. Of that which survives, however, much was incomplete, including Kafka’s novel Amerika with its infamous description of the Statue of Liberty holding a sword aloft over New York Harbor. A very different type of burning was that of the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, who was holed up in a Moscow apartment when the Soviet Union was invaded by the Nazis. Bakhtin was forced to use his manuscript as cigarette paper. The book which he was working on, which would mostly go up in tobacco smoke, was a study of the German novel.   Of the ninety plays which Euripides wrote, only eighteen survive. Aeschylus also wrote ninety tragedies, but of his, only six can be performed today. From his play The Loves of Achilles only one haunting line survives — “Love feels like the ice held in the hand by children.” Sophocles’ has seven plays which are extant, but we know that he penned an astounding 123 dramas. William Shakespeare was the author of a Love’s Labours Won and with his later collaborator John Fletcher a lost play based on Miguel Cervantes novel Don Quixote entitled The History of Cardenio, an irresistible phantom text. Hamlet, it has been convincingly argued, was based on an earlier play most likely written by Thomas Kyd which scholars have given the clinical name of Ur-Hamlet, though no traces of that original are available. Our friend Jonson also has a significant number of lost works, not least of which was 1597’s The Isle of Dogs which he cowrote with Thomas Nash and that was briefly performed at the Bankside Theater. Like Donne’s poem, the subject matter of The Isle of Dogs was potentially treasonous, with the Privy Council ruling that it contained “very seditious and slanderous matter,” banning the play, and briefly arresting its two authors. When it comes to such forgotten, hidden, and destroyed texts, Kelly argues that a “lost book is susceptible to a degree of wish fulfillment. The lost book… becomes infinitely more alluring simply because it can be perfect only in the imagination.” Hidden words have a literary sublimity because they are hidden; their lacunae functions as theme. Mysteriousness is the operative mood of lost literature; whether it’s been victim of water or fire, negligence or malfeasance, history or entropy, what unites them is their unknowability. They are collectively the great unsolved of literature. There’s a bit of Metempsychosis about it, with a more benign lost soul connecting a varied counter-canon from Aristotle to Byron to Austen to Hemingway. Pythagoras who believed that all souls and ideas were united by an unseen divine filament which replicated throughout eternity and infinity would have some insight on the matter. Sadly, none of Pythagoras’ writings happen to survive.   3. The claim that Hernan Cortez was welcomed by Montezuma into Tenochtitlan—that city of verandas, squares, canals, and temples —as if he were the feather-plumed Quetzalcoatl, owes much to the accounts gathered by Bernardino de Sahagun. The Franciscan friar assembled a group of Nahuatl speakers to preserve what remained of Aztec culture, including folklore, philosophy, religion, history, and linguistics. This sliver would be preserved in the Florentine Codex, named after the Italian city where it would one day be housed. The Nahuatl authors attempted to resurrect the world of their parents, when Tenochtitlan was larger and more resplendent than any European city, a collection of cobalt colored palaces, observatories, and libraries such that the conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo recalled “seeing things never before heard of, never before seen.” Miguel Leon-Portilla translates much of the Florentine Codex in The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico, an evocation of that which “had been stormed and destroyed, and a great host of people killed and plundered… causing terror wherever they went, until the news of the destruction spread through the whole land.” Cortez’s conquest took two years and was completed by 1521. Eight years later, the Spanish inquisitor Juan de Zumarraga, fabled in his native land as a witch-hunter, arrived and assembled a massive auto-de-fe of Aztec and Mayan books—with the Mestizo historian Juan Bautista Pomar noting that such treasures “were burned in the royal houses of Nezahualpiltzintli, in a large depository which was the general archive.” If Cortez was guilty of killing thousands of Aztecs, ultimately millions in the pandemics he spread, then Zumarraga was a murderer of memory. One assaulted the body and the other the mind, but the intent was the same — the extinction of a people. Lucien X. Polastron writes in Books on Fire: The Tumultuous Story of the World’s Great Libraries that the “conquistador was there to kill and capture, the cleric to erase; the bishop fulfilled his mission while satisfying his conscious desire to destroy the pride and memory of the native people.” The Jesuit Jose de Acosta mourned that “We’ve lost many memoires of ancient and secret things, that could have been of great utility. This derives from a foolish zeal,” it being left to those like Sahagun to try and redeem the Spanish of this holocaust they’d unleashed. In A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern-day Iraq by Fernando Baez argues that “books are not destroyed as physical objects but as links to memory… There is no identity without memory. If we do not remember what we are, we don’t know what we are.” Zumarraga’s atrocity is only one of many examples, including the destruction of the famed library at Alexandria and the 1536 Dissolution of the Monasteries when the English King Henry VIII would immolate Roman Catholic books in a campaign of terror which destroyed almost the entirety of the early medieval English literary heritage, save for a few token works like Beowulf which would be later rediscovered. Paradoxically, burning books is an acknowledgement of the charged power contained therein. 4.Sometime in 1857, an enslaved woman named Hannah Bond escaped from the North Carolina plantation of John Hill Wheeler. Light-skinned enough to pass as white, Bond dressed in drag and boarded a train due-north, eventually arriving in upstate New York. There Bond would board with a Craft family, from whom she would take her new surname. Eventually the newly christened Hannah Craft would pen in careful hand-writing a novel entitled The Bondswoman’s Narrative, the title perhaps a pun on its author’s previous slave name. Displaying a prodigious knowledge of the books in Wheeler’s library which Craft had been able to read in stolen moments, The Bondwoman’s Narrative is a woven quilt of influences (like all novels are); a palimpsest of things read but not forgotten. There are scraps of Horace Walpole ’s gothic pot-boiler The Castle of Otranto and Charlotte Bronte’s tale of a woman constrained in Jane Eyre; Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sentimentalized slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the poet Phyliss Wheatley’s evocation of bondage, and more than any other literary influence that of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. Drawing from the brutal facts of her own life, The Bondwoman’s Narrative concerns another Hannah’s escape from a plantation. “In presenting this… to a generous public I feel a certain degree of diffidence and self-distrust,” wrote Craft, “I ask myself or the hundredth time How will such a literary venture, coming from a sphere so humble be received?” Written sometime between 1855 (possibly while still in North Carolina) and 1861 (during the earliest days of the Civil War), Craft’s question wouldn’t be answered until 2002, after the manuscript was found squirreled away in a New Jersey attic. As far as we know, The Bondswoman’s Narrative is the only surviving novel by an enslaved black woman. There were an assemblage of slave narratives ranging from Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative from 1789 to Solomon Northup’s terrifying 1853 captivity narrative Twelve Years a Slave and Frederick Douglass’ autobiographical trilogy. Purchased at auction by the Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, who would edit, annotate, and publish the book, Craft’s rediscovery evokes the biblical story about King Josiah restoring Jerusalem’s Temple after finding the Book of Deuteronomy, its purpose to restore a sense of justice. Craft’s intent was that Americans must “recognize the hand of Providence in giving to the righteous the reward of their works, and to the wicked the fruit of their doings.”   There is no discussing lost literature without consideration of that which is found. Just as all literature is haunted by the potential of oblivion, so all lost books are animated by the redemptive hope of their rediscovery. Craft’s book is the mark of a soul; evidence of that which is left over after the spirit has told us what it needs to tell us, even if it takes centuries to hear. A miracle in its rediscovery, Craft’s book is the rare survivor from hell that teaches us how much is lost as humans are lost. What lyrics were written in the minds of those working plantations which we shall never read; what verse revised in the thoughts of those being marched into the gas chamber? This is among the saddest of all lost literature. Craft’s rediscovery provides the divine promise of that canon of lost books—that literature may be lost, but maybe only for a time. 5.During the spring of 2007, I read the entirety of the pre-Socratic metaphysician Democritus. The assignment took me forty-five minutes. I did it in a Starbucks on Forbes Avenue in Pittsburgh and my Venti wasn’t even cold by the time I finished. When we consider literature that has been lost, literature which has survived, and literature that has been rediscovered, it must be understood that much is fragmentary — sometimes in the extreme. Democritus, the “laughing philosopher,” the father of science, who first conceived of atoms, endures in about six photocopied pages. “And yet it will be obvious that it is difficult to really know of what sort each thing is,” reads one of Democritus’ surviving fragments, and how correct he was. Democritus is not unique; most ancient philosophers exist either only in quotation, paraphrase, or reputation. No tomes survive of Thales, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Protagoras, or Zeno, only some flotsam and jetsam here and there. As I’ve already mentioned, Pythagoras has no words of his which survive, and all of Aristotle is turgid second-hand lecture notes. The classical inheritance of Greece and Rome exists, where it does, in shards. Harvard University Press’s celebrated Loeb Classical Library, which prints translations of Greek and Latin literature, has 542 books in the entire sequence, from Apollonius to Xenophon. More than can be read in a long weekend, no doubt, but easily accessible during the course of a lifetime (or a decade). Easy to assume that the papyri of Athens and Rome were kindling for Christians who condemned such pagan heresy, though that’s largely a slander. The reality is more prosaic, albeit perhaps more disturbing in a different way. Moisture did more to betray the classical past than Christianity did; for decay is a patient monarch willing to wilt Plato as much as a grocery list. Something to remember as we have our endless culture wars about what should or shouldn’t be in the canon. What’s remembered happens to simply be what we have.   Fragmentation defines literature — there is a haunting of all which can’t be. Fragments are faint whispers of canons inaccessible. Lacunae is sometimes structured into writing itself, for literature is a graveyard filled with corpses. Sometimes a body is hidden in plain sight – consider Shakespeare’s Sonnet 146. That poem begins “Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth, / […] these rebel powers that thee array.” Because the meter is so aggressively broken, it’s understood that a typesetter’s mistake was responsible for the deletion of whatever the poet intended. Jarring to realize that Shakespeare is forever marred with an ellipsis. Dan Peterson writes in Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary that the aporia in the poem “tends to obsess most commentators,” but that the “poem deserves it; we shouldn’t allow it to be completely ruined by a compositor thinking about his dinner.” Several pages are spent by Peterson trying to use prosody in the service of forensics, with various degrees of plausibility entertained, including Shakespeare having possibly meant to write “fenced by,” “starv’d by,” or “fooled by,” all of which any good New Critic will tell you would imply wildly different interpretations. I’d like to offer an alternative possibility, based not on sober scansion but irresponsible conjecture. Peterson notes that the sonnet is one which “says that the body is a lousy home for the soul, which ends enslaved to its gaudy, pointless, sensual, self-consuming worldliness… it proposes nothing sort of renunciation of worldly things, a mortification of the flesh in exchange for the revival and revivification of the spirit.” Maybe then the gap is the point, an indication that the matter of the poem can never really intimate the soul of meaning, where the black hole of the typographical mistake is actually as if an open grave, an absolute zero of meaning that sublimely demonstrates the theme of the sonnet itself? Because the gulf between printed word and the meanings which animate them is a medium for sublimity, the entirety of all that which we don’t know and can never read as infinite as the universe itself. In the first-century the Roman critic Longinus, whose identity is unknown beyond his name (another way to lose your literature), argued that the “Sublime leads the listeners not to persuasion, but to ecstasy… the Sublime, giving to speech an invincible power and strength, rises above every listener.” Romantic era critics saw the sublime in the Alps and the Lake District; American transcendentalists saw it in the Berkshires and Adirondacks. For myself, I gather the trembling fear of the sublime when I step into the Boston Public Library at Copley Square, when I cross the fierce Fifth Avenue lions of the New York Public Library, and underneath the green-patina roof of the Library of Congress. To be surrounded by the enormity of all that has been written which you shall never read both excites and horrifies me – all the more so when you consider all that is lost to us, whether from misplacement, destruction, or having never been written in the first place (the last category the most sublime of all). Longinus’s “On the Sublime” is also fragmented, struck through with gaps and errors. He tantalizes us at one point with “There is one passage in Herodotus which is generally credited with extraordinary sublimity,” but there is nothing more sublime than a vacuum, for what follows is nothing. Latter he promises that “loosely allied to metaphors are comparisons and similes, differing only in this,” but the page is missing. And at one point he claims that Genesis reads “Let there be light, and there was. Let there be earth, and there was,” though it could be entertained that Longinus is simply quoting an alternative version of the Bible which is lost. His essay was built with words from hidden collections, a gesture towards Alberto Manguel’s observation in The Library at Night that the “weight of absence is as much a feature of any library as the constriction of order or space… by its very existence, [it] conjures up its forbidden or forgotten double.” [millions_email] 6.W.H. Auden was the most ruthless self-editor as his decades-long war of attrition against his most celebrated lyric, “September 1st, 1939,” demonstrates. Originally published in the New Republic on the occasion of Adolph Hitler’s invasion of Poland, “September 1st, 1939” is well-remembered and well-loved for a reason. “I sit in one of those dives/On Fifty-second street,” where Auden hears news of the panzer divisions rushing towards Warsaw and Krakow. Here among mundanity, where “Faces along the bar/Cling to their average day,” Auden invokes feelings all too familiar to us in the contemporary moment (hence the endurance of the poem), these “Waves of anger and fear” felt by the drinkers at the bar; men who feel “Uncertain and afraid/As the clever hopes expire/Of a low dishonest decade.” Nonetheless, Auden maintains that the “lights must never go out, /The music must always play,” in the penultimate stanza including a line that has moved people for eight decades – “We must love one another or die.”   Eighteen years later and Auden would write to a critic that “Between you and me, I loathe that poem.” He saw it as sentimental pablum; most importantly Auden felt that it was simply a lie. His biographer Edward Mendelsohn explains in Early Auden, Later Auden: A Critical Biography that “By his own standards, if not those of his readers, these public poems failed.” In later editions he changed the line to “We must love one another and die,” the conjunction giving an entirely different meaning (albeit literally truer). The red pen is not easily pulled out once a book is in print, for though he omitted the line in collections released in both 1945 and 1966, it was inevitable that “September 1st, 1939” would circulate, even though he wrote that it was “trash which he is ashamed to have written.” This poem is not lost literature, but rather a case of a failed attempt to have buried the word. Impossible to imagine that Auden didn’t despair at the simple fact that there had been a time when he could have strangled the poem in the crib, that before “September 1st, 1939” was sent out into the world the sovereign power of the strike-through had still once been his. Luckily for us Auden didn’t do that, but it does demonstrate that one of the most effective means of losing literature is in editing and revising. How many innumerable drafts of famous novels and poems exist, revisions immeasurable? If there is any modernist credo, it’s one of valorizing the red pen. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s injunction to “kill your darlings,” and anecdotes about Hemingway writing a staggering forty-seven drafts of A Farewell to Arms (but only one of his novels is in some tossed luggage somewhere). Such is the masochism of contemporary composition advice, whereby if there is one inviolate truism it’s that writing isn’t writing unless its rewriting. Vladimir Nabokov who bragged that “My pencils outlast their erasers”; Truman Capote saying “I believe in the scissors”; and E.B. White and William Strunk’s commandment in The Elements of Style that “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words” (I reject that advice). Lean, muscular, masculine, taut, minimalist prose was the point of writing, and as such loss became an intrinsic part of literature itself. Hannah Sullivan in her brilliant The Work of Revision examines how the cult of editing emerged, looking at how technology in part facilitated the possibility of multiple drafts. With the introduction of mechanical means of composition (i.e. the typewriter) authors had, for the first time, the possibility to relentlessly write and rewrite, and a certain ethos of toughness surrounding the culling of words developed. “Our irrepressible urge to alter ‘the givens’ helped to create Modernism,” argues Sullivan, and “remakes us right to the end.” In some ways, contemporary technology haunts us with the ghosts of exorcised drafts more than mere typewriters ever could. Sullivan had a record of typed pages to look back at: drafts with underlined and struck out passages, a cacophony of addition carrots and transposition marks and the eternal promise of “TK,” rendered in ink and whiteout, but she had a record. With Word processing, editing and revision can be instantaneous in a manner that they couldn’t with a Remington, so that drafts exist layered on top of each other, additions and deletions happening rapidly in real time, with no record of what briefly existed before like some quantum fluctuation. A final copy is the result of writing, but is not writing itself. It rather represents the aftermath of a struggle between the author and the word, merely the final iteration of something massive, and copious, and large spreading its tendrils unseen backwards into a realm of lost literature. Revision is a rhizomatic thing, each one of the branches of potential writing hidden and holding aloft the tiny plant. A final draft is the corpse left over after the life that is writing has ended.   7.How talented an actor must Edwin Forrest have been that on May 10th, 1849 his fans would be willing to riot in his defense after it was perceived that he was being slighted by rival thespian William Charles Macready? The two had long come to blows in the press over who was the superior Shakespearean actor, and they each had their own partisans. Where Macready was delicate and refined, Forest was rough-hewn and rugged; Macready delivered his lines with elegance, Forest with swagger and punch. Advocates for Macready watched their hero perform Hamlet in the palatial theaters of Broadway; the faction of Forrest was content to drink and brawl in front of the Bowery’s stages. Most importantly, Macready was British and Forrest an American. Shakespeare was thus an issue of patriotic loyalty, with Nigel Cliff writing in The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century America that the Bard was “fought over, in frontier saloons no less than in aristocratic salons, with an almost hysterical passion.” “Early in life,” Forrest once said, “I took a great deal of exercise and made myself what I am, a Hercules.” The “Bowery Boys” of the Five Points slums were delighted by Forrest’s American self-regard. Which actor you preferred, and whose style of delivery you saw as superior, said much about who you were as a person. Forrest was preferred by the working class, both Know Nothing nativists and Irish immigrants thrilled to him, while the Anglophilic New York aristocracy attended Macready plays in droves. Following three nights of rambunctious, mocking “Bowery Boys” buying seats out at Macready’s title performance in Macbeth (of course) at the Astor Place Opera, a riot would explode, leaving as many as three dozen people dead, and over a hundred injured. The worst violence in the city since British prison ships dotted the harbor during the Revolution, and until the Draft Riots would burn through New York during the Civil War. All of it over the power of performances that none of us shall ever see.   No literature is more intrinsic to human experience than performance, and no literature is more perishable. The New York World said that Forrest had “head tones that splintered rafters,” and reviewers noted the distinctive elongated pauses of Macready’s delivery, but the fact is that theirs is an art that will never be accessible to us. Sometimes Macready is configured as a stuffy Laurence Olivier to Forrest’s virile Marlon Brando, but more than likely both would have performed in the rigid, stylized style that reigned supreme in a theater where there was no technology that could amplify voices and where the idea of the naturalistic method would have seemed bizarre. We can’t really know though — Forrest died in 1872, followed less than six months later by Macready, both within five years of Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph. We know a tremendous amount about the men, and eventually the women, who first performed some of the most iconic of plays centuries before Forrest and Macready. Even with contemporary accounts, however, we’ll never actually be able to see Richard Burbage, knowing rather the names of the characters he first played — Hamlet, Lear, Othello. Likewise, the Elizabethan comedian Richard Tarlton has had his monologues rendered mute by history. Or the Kings Men’s great comedic actor William Kempe, famous for his improvisational shit-talking at jeering audiences, though none of his jibes come down to us, even while it believed that he was instrumental in the composition of one of his most famous characters – Lear’s fool. And the incomparable Edward Alleyn, confidant of Christopher Marlowe (and son-in-law of Donne) who was regarded as the greatest actor to ever grace the Rose Theater stage, and who mastered a subtle art so ephemeral that it disappeared the moment the play ended. Of this assemblage, Stanley Wells writes in Shakespeare & Co.: Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, John Middleton, John Fletcher and the Other Players in His Story that they were “leading actors who would have been stars whenever they were born.” Well, maybe. Who is to say? Part of the glory of the theater is its gossamer transience, the way in which each performance is different, how it can’t be replicated. A script is an inert thing, while the play is the thing forever marked by its own impermanence. In the years after Macready and Forrest died, Edison gave us the illusion of eternity, the idea that voices and images could be preserved. Nothing signaled a greater shift in human consciousness over the past millennium than the myth that both very far away or long after somebody’s death (not dissimilar states) that their identity could be preserved in an eternal present. We can’t watch Forrest or Macready — but we can Olivier and Brando. It seems fundamentally different, a way of catching forever the ephemeral nature of performance, of preserving the fleeting. An illusion though, for decay just takes longer to come. Film must have seemed a type of immortality, but it’s estimated that 75% of silent films are lost forever, and as many as 90% of all films made before 1929. Flammable nitrate and the fickle junking of Hollywood studios proved as final as death, because not only can you never watch Forrest or Macready, you also can’t see Lon Chaney in London After Midnight, Theda Bara in Cleopatra, or Humor Risk — the first film starring the Marx Brothers. 8. “It is one hundred years since our children left,” reads a cryptic, anonymous missive in the town record of the German city of Hamelin from 1384. The only evidence for the basis of that disturbing fairy tale about the Pied Piper, he of mottled cloth and hypnotic music who drew all of the children of the town away from their parents after he’d already depleted it of vermin. Fairy tales operate by strange dream logic, chthonic echoes from the distant past which exist half-remembered in our culture. Hypotheses have been proffered as to what the story may have been based on, why those children were taken. Explanations include that the youth of the city were victims of mass psychosis in a manner similar to the outbreaks of compulsive dancing which marked the late Middle Ages; it’s been suggested that they were victims of plague, that they’d been sold into slavery, or that they’d been recruited by a roving preacher to join one of the ill-fated “Children’s Crusades” that sent thousands of adolescents off to the Levant. Regardless of the basis for the fairy tale, it’s story has played down in our culture like an idee fix, in the nineteenth-century appearing not just in the Brothers Grimm’s Children’s and Household Tales, but also in poems by Johann Goethe and Robert Browning, with “Pied Piper” a short-hand for the siren’s manipulative call. Who then “authored” the original story? Do we credit the reinvention of the Grimm’s as its origin, do we count the source material from which they drew their inspiration, does each text influenced by the tale stand on its own? Was it whatever forlorn ancestor made that annotation in Hamlin’s ledger? The Pied Piper himself? The nature of a fairy tale is that everyone is their reader but nobody is their author. Jack Zipes writes in Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre that “We respond to these classical tales almost as if we were born with them, and yet, we know full well that they have been socially produced and induced and continue to be generated.” The Grimms and other Romantic-minded folklorists saw the fairy tale as arising spontaneously from the collective genius of the people, and there is a sense in which these anonymous tales are a collaborative venture of composition which takes places over centuries, millennia even. They are, in a sense, examples of lost literature finding itself, their creators’ anonymity a different form of oblivion. The fairy tales which we all seem to intuitively know — Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Rumpelstiltskin — were collected by linguists like the Brothers Grimm, but it was in the twentieth-century that folklorists were actually able to categorize them. Chief among the classification systems developed for fairy tales is the Aarne-Thompson-Uthar Index, a complex method of charting the various narrative relationships between disparate stories, with an accompanying numeric mark to distinguish individual narratives. Cinderella, for example, is ATU 510A; Beauty and the Beast is ATU 425C. Scholars were able to thus chart stories to their potential beginnings. The tale of Cinderella finds its earliest iteration in ancient Greek writings of the geographer Strabo; researchers at the University of Durham have been able to ascertain that the Beast first met Belle in a version from an astounding four-thousand years ago. Jamie Terhani and Sara Graça da Silva, the folklorists who used phylogenetic means to chart alterations in Indo-European languages so as to estimate the approximate age of various fairy tales, have claimed that The Devil and the Smith (of which the Faust legend is an iteration) may have first been told six millennia ago.    So many variations, so many lost stories, whispered only to infants in swaddling clothe over millennia. We can never know what exactly the earliest version of those stories was like; we’ll never know the names of those who composed them. Fairy tales pull at our soul like the vestigial leg of an amputee, a dull ache of people long since gone whose stories we still tell even though we’ve forgotten the creators. Anonymous literature of this sort is the most intimate, told to children before bed-time, repeated to families preparing food around a kitchen table. “I would venture to guess that Anon,” wrote Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, “who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” Such is the lost literature of our mothers, and our grandmothers, of “Anon” who is the greatest writer who ever lived (or didn’t).  Nothing is as intrinsic to our sense of identity like these sorts of stories, when all else is stripped away from us — popular paper backs, avant-garde experimentation, canonical literature — fairy tales will remain. While our libraries are inscribed with names like “Shakespeare” and “Cervantes,” we’ll never be able to chisel into stone the legion of those who composed Cinderella. 9.Since his brother died, Amadeo Garcia Garcia can only speak his native tongue to another human in his dreams. His language was once used to express love and anger, to console and castigate, to build, to instruct, to preserve, now relegated only to nocturnal phantoms. Over the last several decades, fewer and fewer people were able to understand Taushiro, till only Garcia’s immediate family knew the language, and now they’ve all died. A linguistic isolate spoken in the Peruvian Amazon, Taushiro is like all languages in that its syntax and grammar, its morphology and diction, necessarily shapes its speaker’s perception of reality. Journalist Nicholas Casey who introduced Garcia’s story to the world in a New York Times article notes that the “entire fate of the Taushiro people now lies with its last speaker, a person who never expected such a burden and has spent much of his life overwhelmed by it.” When it joins that graveyard of discarded language, alongside Akkadian and Manx, Ainu and Etruscan, what will pass is nothing so dry as a dictionary, but an entire vision of the world. Literature is language and all languages are literature, forged collaboratively in the discourse between people. When the only ones left to talk to are ghosts of dead loved ones in dreams, it’s as if the coda for an entire universe. Linguist K. David Harrison explains in When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge what exactly is at stake. As of the turn of this century, there were 6,912 distinct languages spoken in the world, albeit the vast majority of those spoken by exceedingly few people (as with Taushiro and its speakership of one). He explains that 204 of those languages have less than ten speakers, and that an additional 344 have no more than a hundred. By the end of this century, the number of spoken languages will be half that previous number, if we’re lucky. Victim to globalization and “development,” Harrison says that we stand to lose an “immense edifice of human knowledge, painstakingly assembled over millennia by countless minds, [which] is eroding, vanishing into oblivion.” Garcia can give us indications of what the stories he heard from his parents were like, of how it feels to speak a language that doesn’t distinguish between numbers, or where diction is whittled down to a pristine simplicity, but we’ll never really know since none of us can speak Taushiro. It was the anthropologist Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf who made the fullest argument as to the way that these unique qualities produce thought, where language isn’t the result of ideas, but rather that ideas were the result of language. Their estimation was that things like tense, person, subject-verb-object order, and so on, don’t just convey information—they create it. Whorf was an insurance claims adjuster intimately aware of how much of reality depends on the language through which we sieve our experience; it was he who was responsible for the convention of “flammable” things being marked as such, as opposed to the grammatically correct “inflammable,” which he had discovered people took to mean the opposite.    Their Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is succinctly stated by the first of the two in his 1929 The Status of Linguistics as a Science, when he argued that “Human beings do not live in the objective world alone… but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society… The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached.” English is not French is not Greek is not Farsi is not Punjabi. Taushiro is not English. Translation is feeling about in a darkened room and being able to discern the outline of the door, but it doesn’t give one the ability to step through into the other room (only perhaps to hear some muffled conversation with an ear pressed against the wall). When a tongue has genuinely stopped moving there is an insurmountable difference separating us from its literature. We’ll never quire get the fear in Elamite accounts of Alexander the Great invading the Achaemenid Empire; nor understand the vanquished pathos of the god Chemosh speaking in his native Moabite; or the longing implicit in the poetry of Andalusian Arabic. Each one of those languages had their own last speakers, as lonely as Garcia, like Lot surveying his destroyed home and thinking he was the last man on Earth, or as its said in Taushiro, “Ine aconahive ite chi yi tua tieya ana na’que I’yo lo’.” 10.A thousand virgin trees have been planted in the Nordmarka forest near Oslo. Just saplings today, the Norwegian spruces are embanked by older birch and fur trees, but the new plantings are marked to be felled in 2114, after they’ve grown for a century. At that point, they’ll be pulped and turned to paper, which will be transported to the Deichman Library, which houses a printing press that will be used to produce the first editions of books that will have been compiled over the preceding ten decades and maintained in the sanctum of a wooden space known as the “Silent Room.” This is the Scottish artist Katie Peterson’s Future Library Project, in which a different prominent author will contribute a novel every year until the completion date, with the understanding that nobody will be allowed to read their contribution until 2114. Which means that none of you reading this today will ever be able to parse Margaret Atwood’s novel Scribbler Moon. What its plot is, who the characters she’s created are, or the themes entertained, is all a glorious absence, save for that evocative two-word title. Nor can you read David Mitchell’s From Me Flows What You Call Time, whose title makes it sound as if it were an imagined novel from his Cloud Atlas, the author remarking that taking part in the project was a “vote of confidence in the future.” The most recent contribution has come from native son Karl Ove Knausgaard, an untitled work which may or may not contain descriptions of breakfast that go on for pages. Knausgaard said of Paterson’s vision, that it’s “such a brilliant idea, I very much like the thought that you will have readers who are still not born — it’s like sending a little ship from our time to them.” A vote of confidence in the future is a beautiful description of a beautiful project, if an idiosyncratic one. It’s also a definition of literature, for even though the writer must primarily create for herself, literature still must transmit in the connections between minds. Literature is a vote of confidence in the future, in the present, in the past – it’s a vote of confidence in other people. The Future Library Project is in keeping with those theorists who are concerned with “deep time,” with the profoundly long view and arc of human history as it rushes away from us. The Long Now Foundation of San Francisco is one such organization that encourages all of us to think in the sorts of terms that Paterson does, to understand that innumerable civilizations have fallen and so shall ours, but that there is a way in which history ever moves forward. Stewart Brand writes of a future Library of Alexandria in The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility, imagining a “10,000-Year Library… [in] a vast underground complex hewn out of rock – preferably a mountain.” The Long Now Foundation tentatively is taking suggestions for what a 10,000-Year library might look like, what books should be included, and how we’re to understand the continuity of an institution that would be older than all of recorded human history. “Fantasy immediately calls up a refuge from the present,” Brand writes, “a place of weathered stone walls and labyrinthine stacks of books, at a remote location with far horizons. It is a place for contemplative research and small, immersive conferences on topics of centenary and millennial scope.” Surely, he knows that there is something quixotic in this vision, just as Paterson no doubt understands that a century hence it’s quite possible that nobody will be left around to read those books in Oslo. Literature is forever in the process of being lost, and it’s hubristic to assume that what we read today will be around to be read tomorrow. Nevertheless, that’s the beauty in Peterson and Brand’s dreams, that it conceives of a way that all which is lost shall someday be found, that all which is feeble can be preserved. Theirs is a struggle of attrition against that most merciless of editors known as entropy. All literature is of a similar resistance against time, mortality, finitude, limitation. To write it to commit an act of faith, to pray that what words you’ve assembled shall last longer than you, and that they’ll hopefully be found by at least someone who shall be, however briefly, changed. Bonus Links:—Ten Ways to Live ForeverTen Ways to Save the WorldTen Ways to Look at the Color Black Image Credit: Pexels/Bakr Magrabi.
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