This Month in Books: The Decameron Is Online

John William Waterhouse, A Tale from the Decameron, 1916. (Wikimedia Commons)

“The pestilence was so powerful that it was transmitted to the healthy by contact with the sick, the way a fire close to dry and oily things will set them aflame. And the evil of the plague went even further: not only did talking to or being around the sick bring infection and a common death, but also touching the clothes of the sick or anything touched or used by them…” —Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron

“At the beginning of the plague, when there was now no more hope but that the whole city would be visited;…you may be sure from that hour all trade, except such as related to immediate subsistence, was, as it were, at a full stop.” —Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year

 

Dear Reader,

When the pandemic comes, the usual thing is for people to stop talking to one another. I’ve been consulting my small collection of plague books (a normal thing to own), and I’m getting the impression that this has always been the case. Talking and touching are, after all, biologically indistinguishable; to communicate, you have to get close to someone. Close enough to catch whatever it is they’ve got.

Or anyway that used to be how it went. It used to be that, when a plague came around, if you were worried you couldn’t live without other people and their stories and all their little habits and funny dances and things, you had better secure a few charming young noblewomen to take with you into seclusion at your country villa for the duration of the epidemic. Nowadays the script has been flipped. Clubbers can go to “cloud raves,” bored teens can post funny videos, and I can write and publish this month’s books newsletter from the comfort of my living room — I can communicate myself to thousands of you even though I haven’t left my house in like 90 hours, having been a little too spooked by the specter of “community spread” in New York to see First Cow at the Angelika this weekend even though I already had tickets.

(Not, to be honest, that I don’t always write the newsletter from my couch! But it’s a little different, obviously, working from home as opposed to actively avoiding other people.)

The coronavirus is “the first pandemic in history that could be controlled,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday. What he meant is that it’s the first pandemic for which we’ve had a whole host of technologies at our disposal that can allow society to screech to a grinding halt without totally collapsing — arguably the most important of which is the internet. Solitude without loneliness is, incredibly, achievable on a wide scale. We can all quarantine alone, together, in one big villa in the cloud. No need to recruit the noblewomen. The Decameron is online.

With that in mind, here’s a round-up of nine not-to-be-missed book-related stories from all around the web this past month, communicated from me to you with zero physical contact. And, while reading, if you happen to get tempted to go out into a big crowd and breathe other people’s air and feel the heat from other people’s bodies, remember this important piece of advice: don’t.

 

1. “Sex in the Theater: Jeremy O. Harris and Samuel Delany in Conversation” by Toniann Fernandez, The Paris Review

A remarkable conversation on sex, art, and so much more between acclaimed playwright Jeremy O. Harris and sci-fi legend Samuel Delany, whom you may or may not know is also, in the vein of his childhood inspirations Henry Miller and the Marquis de Sade, a writer of erotic novels, such as the “unpublishable” Hogg.

2. “A Dirty Secret: You Can Only Be a Writer If You Can Afford It” by Lynn Steger Strong, The Guardian

Novelist Lynn Steger Strong examines the damning economics of authorship.

3. “The Post-Traumatic Novel” by Lili Loofbourow, The New York Review of Books

“What I have found myself hungering for, in short, is literature that stretches past legal testimonies and sentimental appeals toward what, for lack of a better phrase, I’m calling post-traumatic futurity.” Lili Loofbourow reviews three recent books reflective of the Me Too moment and outlines a new approach to the survivor’s story.


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4. “Jericho Rising” by Allison Glock, Garden & Gun

A profile of the incredible Jericho Brown. “In person, Brown is an explosion of life, magnetic, boisterous, a one-man carnival ride. Simply put, there is no scenario where one would be unaware that Jericho Brown is in the room.”

5. “Fan Fiction Was Just as Sexual in the 1700s as It Is Today” by Shannon Chamberlain, The Atlantic

Get this: Henry Fielding made a smutty fanfic of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and he called it… Shamela.

6. “Killing the Joke: On Andrea Long Chu’s Females” by Elena Comay del Junco, The Point

Like pretty much everyone, I take perverse delight in a good takedown. There have been a lot of spicy takedown reviews already this year— Lauren Oyler on Jia Tolentino, Emily Gould on Meghan Daum, Jennifer Szalai on Katie Roiphe — and I suppose that, technically, this not-exactly-positive review of Andrea Long Chu’s Females could be seen as something like a takedown; but in the end Comay del Junco’s approach is so thoughtful that it just makes me more interested in the book. Sometimes disagreement is not discouragement.

7. “Behind the Green Baize Door” by Alison Light, The London Review of Books

A review of Feminism and the Servant Problem, a history of the political tension between the suffragettes and their maids: “Employers protested against interference in the relations between mistress and maid. Some believed that their servants had it easy — novel-reading was a particular irritant. One cautioned against leaving the suffrage paper lying around the house: it was too sexually explicit and political discussion might give servant girls the wrong idea.”

8. “Opportunity Costs: On Work, Idealism, and Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley” by Eryn Loeb, Guernica

Eryn Loeb reflects on her own work history while reviewing Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley, a memoir of selling out in Silicon Valley.

9. “The Beats, the Hungryalists, and the Call of the East” by Akanksha Singh, The Los Angeles Review of Books

Singh reviews Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury’s The Hungryalists, a book that explores the connection between Allen Ginsberg and the eponymous group of radical Bengali poets. “Their name is in reference to Geoffrey Chaucer’s use of hungry in in the sowre hungry tyme in his translation of The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius.”

 

Happy reading, and good luck! Stay inside if you can!

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky
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