new york books review classics

5 Overlooked Nonfiction New York Review of Books Classics

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Michael Herrington

Michael Herrington is a writer and copy editor from Texas who can never get enough nonfiction, documentaries, and honeycrisp apples. He has a background in journalism, having worked for The Lufkin Daily News and Charm East Texas. His favorite book genres are memoir, history, and essay collection. He can be reached at [email protected].

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For 20 years, The New York Review of Books ‘s publishing division, NYRB Classics being its most famous imprint, has offered a steady supply of under-read and almost-forgotten literary gems to curious readers. While novels like Stoner (perhaps the imprint’s biggest success) and The Invention of Morel  have made the biggest splashes, the library’s nonfiction has been the biggest draw for yours truly.

Here are five overlooked (less than 1,000 Goodreads ratings) nonfiction titles from the NYRB Classics’s catalog. For a lengthier list of great nonfiction, check out Rebecca Hussey’s from last October.

The World I Live In by Helen Keller

Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life is firmly lodged in the autobiographical canon, and even people who haven’t read it or seen its adaptations, usually under the title The Miracle Worker , are familiar with the details of Keller’s childhood. You would expect her followup book to be a sequel, but The World I Live In is a completely different beast. From the direct first page to the rapturous final chapter, Keller explains her condition, corrects misunderstanding and dispels the notion that she is incapable of living a full life. Ironically, through putting her experience on paper and bringing herself down to earth, Keller comes off as even more extraordinary. The term “life-changing” gets attached to books easier than to any other art form, but The World I Live In deserves the label. You can’t help but be transformed by it.

The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual by Harold Cruse

This 550-page work of history and cultural criticism will be a slog for some readers (it’s by far the driest, most dense read on this list) and catnip for others, particularly if you’re into the Harlem Renaissance. Cruse charts the path of black intellectual thought from the 1920s to 1967, the year of the book’s publication, and ends up being harsh on both integrationists and black nationalists. Make no mistake, Cruse was not pro-segregation, but he didn’t see integration as a panacea to racial problems. Highly recommended to those interested in American race relations; just have Wikipedia at the ready.

An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie

It was a routine trip to his town’s missionary bookstore when Tété-Michel Kpomassie, then 16, came across a book about Eskimos in Greenland. When he read it, he instantly fell in love with the country and became determined to go there. For over a decade, Kpomassie worked his way through Africa and Europe and finally sailed to the country of his dreams. The memoir that resulted from his travels rivals the best of the genre in terms of detail and scene-setting. Kpomassie’s good-naturedness and enthusiasm is simply infectious, and the tone of the book reminded me of the globe-trotting surfers from Bruce Brown’s classic documentary The Endless Summer . I knew I was in for an interesting book, but I wasn’t expecting a feel-good one.

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Miami and the Siege of Chicago  by Norman Mailer

This account of 1968’s Republican and Democratic National Conventions usually plays second banana to Mailer’s New Journalism classic The Armies of the Night , but I think Miami and the Siege of Chicago is every bit that book’s equal. The opening half, about the RNC, offers priceless snapshots of Republican higher-ups of the time (As with The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual , have Wikipedia on hand to brush up on your history when you encounter an unfamiliar name), but it’s the ground- (and sometimes balcony-) level dispatch about the Chicago police riot, which broke out in response to anti-Vietnam war protests, that makes this essential reading for anyone interested in 20th-century American history.

Poison Penmanship  by Jessica Mitford

Jessica Mitford published two memoirs, Hons and Rebels  and A Fine Old Conflict , before Poison Penmanship , and in a way this collection of magazine pieces works as a third: a memoir of the writing life. It’s also something of a journalism manual, beginning with a great introduction and following each piece with comments and criticism from Mitford, in which she often kicks herself for missing an opportunity here or there, or wishes she had structured her story differently. Above all, the articles are plain fun. “Maine Chance Diary,” “My Short and Happy Life as a Distinguished Professor” and the two Sign of the Dove pieces in particular are as funny as anything in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again . Any way you read it, and whatever you take from it, this book is a joy.

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An illustration of a bookstore. Two people are reading a red book and a cat is standing in the doorway.

Our Favorite Bookstores in New York City

Where we shop for books in the Big Apple.

By The New Yorker

Our writers and editors share some of their favorite bookshops in the city, including where they go to find classic fiction, art and design books, vintage editions, comics and zines, and writing in languages other than English.

Freebird Books

Cobble Hill

A sign in the window of this shop, situated on a quiet stretch of the Brooklyn waterfront, indicates that it is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sundays, and on other days “by chance.” Inside, you’ll find silence, a variety of used fiction and nonfiction titles, and some shelves with novelty themes, including “Bad Titles,” “Unfortunate Author Photos,” and “Great Jackets.” (A recent title on the “Bad Titles” shelf: “ Woods We Live With: A Guide to the Identification of Wood in the Home .”) There are a couple of uncomfortable-looking couches sitting in the shop’s front section, next to the children’s books, as well as a whole bookcase dedicated to books about New York City, and two shelves dedicated to New Yorker magazine writers: Joseph Mitchell; Lillian Ross; A. J. Liebling; James Thurber; Ved Mehta; E. J. Kahn, Jr.; George W. S. Trow, etc. —Eric Lach

Interior of the bookstore Bookmarc in the West Village.

West Village

Is it a bookstore or a vibe? Bookmarc, situated in a corner storefront opposite Magnolia Bakery, is both. Opened in 2010, the style-conscious shop is the last vestige of Marc Jacobs’s once-sprawling Bleecker Street retail empire. Its carefully curated selection evokes the retro chic of Andy Warhol and Studio 54. Chunky counterculture art books (Keith Haring, Nan Goldin) abound, alongside paperback collections by fetishized authors (Joan Didion, Truman Capote); hip sixties classics (“ Lunch Poems ,” “ Valley of the Dolls ”); and themed shelves on fashion, food and drink, and the gay underground. (Is that a weathered copy of “ The Butch Manual ,” from 1982? It is.) Customers are greeted by a come-hither portrait of Grace Jones, glaring from the cover of a volume of Warhol Polaroids. The books fight for space with branded Marc Jacobs tchotchkes: pens, tote bags, sparkly key fobs. It’s tempting to scoff at the idea of books as cool-factor design objects, but I always leave wanting to own everything in the joint. —Michael Schulman

The front windows and entrance at the bookstore Books Are Magic.

Books Are Magic

To both borrow and mangle a tag line: If you love the name Books Are Magic, this bookstore is for you. If you hate the name Books Are Magic, this bookstore is for you. The novelist Emma Straub’s Cobble Hill shop has an excellent selection, a cozy vibe, and a wonderful lineup of live events. (On the events: get there early, because the space fills quickly. Worst-case scenario, there are a bunch of great bars and restaurants nearby where you can wait until things quiet down.) With its brightly colored mural, tongue-in-cheek genre categories, and handwritten recommendations, Books Are Magic will charm those for whom reading is a pastime, an aesthetic, and a life style. And, for those who’d prefer to skip straight to reading their books rather than, say, twirling whimsically with them on the Scottish seaside: Bring your picks to one of the friendly and knowledgeable staff members at the register; you’ll be on your way in no time. —Katy Waldman

Front windows and entrance of the bookstore Printed Matter.

Printed Matter

Thrilling, overwhelming, chaotic: even if I spend an hour in Printed Matter, I often feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. It took me a couple of years to realize there was a second floor at their main location in Chelsea. A survivor from a different era of New York, the shop (there are two locations, but make the effort to go to the one in Chelsea) specializes in self-published zines, artists’ books, quirky periodicals, anything involving text on paper. Whether you come across the sole copy of some kid’s photocopied poems or the much-hyped début monograph of an up-and-coming painter, a zine about Jamaican dancehall culture or one about Hong Kong skaters, a book of appropriated anime art or one about communing with the mountains, there’s truly something for everyone, and at price points that range from “just curious” to collector-aficionado. Their mission remains the same as when they started in the mid-seventies: to kindle faith in creative expression, the weirder the better. —Hua Hsu

Desert Island

Williamsburg

At the intersection of the L and the G train lines (I’ve lived on the G for the past fourteen years and lived on the L before that) is Desert Island, a bookshop that is so beautifully designed that it doubles as a work of art. The Williamsburg storefront, once Sparacino’s Bakery, has purveyed comics, graphic novels, artists’ books, prints, and zines on consignment since 2008. There are so many analog treasures stuffed into this place; there is so much loving curation. It begs you to take your time. Linger in front of the latest window installation. Browse the racks of mini-comics. (A recent find: “Suitable for Framing: The Cartoons of Andy Boyd, Volume 1.”) Pick up “Smoke Signal,” the free full-color broadside published by the shop’s owner, Gabe Fowler, showcasing one artist per issue. Dance to whatever record is spinning. I adore Desert Island—its lightness and imagination, its glorious delight in drawings and words. —E. Tammy Kim

Barnes & Noble

Upper West Side

There are all kinds of interesting and welcoming small and smallish bookstores in my neighborhood—from Book Culture on West 112th to the Strand’s uptown outpost and much in between—but I have to give props to, yes, Barnes & Noble on Broadway and Eighty-second: their size, which doesn’t come cheap, insures that they have plenty to offer; they are kind to everyone, kids especially; and the new redesign is elegant and welcoming. —David Remnick

The interiors of the bookstore Albertine with bookshelves stellar ceiling and drum lamps.

Upper East Side

No matter what country I’m in, I love to go to bookstores that are from a different one, and Albertine, a marvellously curated two-story French bookstore situated in a Gilded Age mansion on Fifth Avenue, is a true gem. Attentive staff, comfy seating, a broad but legible selection of new and classic Francophone literature (in both French and English), and much Proustiana, in a hushed jewel-box-like space. —Elif Batuman

East Village Books

East Village

A friend introduced me to East Village Books about six months after I moved to the neighborhood. I must have walked past the store, which is situated only two blocks from my apartment, on the corner of St. Mark’s Place and First Avenue, a dozen times before I learned about it. Cozy, crumpled, it is not the most conspicuous of bookstores. The bookcases are almost always covered with a thin film of dust, and the shelves do not hide their age. Like the used books it holds, the shop feels like the kind of place you return to time and again not in spite of the stains but because of them. — Jiayang Fan

A view of the bookstore Three Lives and Company and its shelves from the stores red door.

Three Lives & Company

Three Lives & Company is the Platonic ideal of an independent neighborhood bookstore, a throwback to another time that invites browsing and discovery. You can almost feel the joy and the judgment, the taste and the personality of the people who choose what to stock, what to display, what to recommend. It’s amazing that the store has managed to hold on through decades of West Village gentrification and the influx of designer boutiques around it—and that it still offers coffee and scones at book signings. —Deborah Treisman

Unnameable Books

Prospect Heights

Sometimes I enter a bookstore with a specific purchase in mind, but, when I’m in the mood to explore, to be surprised, to find something I didn’t know I needed, I head to Unnameable Books, in Prospect Heights. A cozy shop where waist-high stacks of new and used volumes teeter amid eclectically stocked shelves, Unnameable has a homey feeling, like browsing your smartest, coolest friend’s personal library; it’s a place that reminds you that every book has a story, and not just the one contained between its covers. Their curation highlights independent publishers and boasts a particularly excellent poetry selection: I’ve left carrying secondhand copies of Anne Carson’s “ Float ,” Diane Wakoski’s “ Greed, Parts 8, 9, 11 ,” Czesław Miłosz’s “ Provinces ” (translated, from the Polish, by Robert Hass), and Nathaniel Mackey’s “ Late Arcade .” Plus, there’s a sweet back-yard space where Unnameable hosts readings—recently, when I visited for the launch of “ I Love Information ,” by Courtney Bush, the house was packed with friends and devotees of literature, who listened, rapt, to poems by Bush and her fellow-readers as the late-summer sun set over Brooklyn. It was a celebration of the written word and of the ways it brings people together: quintessentially Unnameable. —Hannah Aizenman

An interior view of the bookstore McNally Jackson.

McNally Jackson

The McNally Jackson bookshop at 52 Prince Street—the original location of a chain that now has three more—was an oasis. Nestled on a busy block just east of one of the most heavily touristed sections of lower Broadway, the store offered a ravishingly deep and varied collection of books, a lush alcove of glossy (and decidedly not-glossy) magazines, a café, and a crop of tightly crowded but generously sized tables. It was a godsend for the weary shopper, the bored office worker, or the young woman ready to complain to a friend about an unrequited infatuation. When it closed last year, I mourned, until it was replaced by a new location on the other side of Broadway, ritzier-looking than its predecessor—wood floors ditched in favor of polished concrete; brushed-metal balustrades in favor of black ones—but just as handsomely stocked. Loss and renewal, hand in hand. — Victoria Uren

At the intersection of Bleecker and Bowery, and conveniently adjacent to a Think Coffee, this used bookstore may appear small but is quite substantial in its selection—it stocks titles in multiple languages, including vintage editions of works by fan-favorite New York writers, like Kathy Acker and Allen Ginsberg. I am a regular peruser of the one-dollar book carts outside the shop, where I’ve stumbled across many best-sellers and classics. Inside, the space has just enough room for two rows of wooden shelves, set narrowly apart, which make me feel as if I am, too, being placed on a shelf, cozy between books. This is where a bulk of my library comes from—including a first-edition copy of Rimbaud’s “ Illuminations ” and a signed copy of Natalie Diaz’s “ When My Brother Was an Aztec .” As the name suggests, a visit to Codex immerses me in the physicality of paper. After each customer makes a purchase, the cashier writes down the title in a log with a pencil before handing it over. —Chloe Xiang  ♦

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Stacker

These 50 iconic books are set in New York. How many have you read?

Posted: March 11, 2023 | Last updated: August 6, 2023

<p>Every state has its hallmark writers. Mississippi has William Faulkner and his incomparable (fictional) Yoknapatawpha County and Missouri can lay claim to Mark Twain. The state of Maine is gifted with Pulitzer winner Richard Russo and horror icon Stephen King. Rural Pennsylvania is the playground of the much-heralded (and occasionally maligned) John Updike, and when many bibliophiles think of New Jersey, they also think of Richard Ford's series of novels featuring recurring Everyman character Frank Bascombe. Illinois can lay claim to William Maxwell, Sandra Cisneros, and Adam Langer, among numerous others. And what reader can think of Washington State without contending with the sparkle-vampire yarns of Stephanie Meyer?</p><p>What makes authors like these inextricably associated with a particular state is not simply the matter of their having been born there or choosing to live there. The connection, from a writerly standpoint, is deeper than that—their work, nearly all of it, is set in "their" state.</p><p>Of course, there are certainly exceptions. Whether a writer sets a tale in the town where they went to college or spent part of their childhood—like Donna Tartt's "The Secret History" and its New England arts school setting and the almost-factual small town of Jo Ann Beard's "In Zanesville," respectively—or crafts a story that follows a social or political theme to a location they know little about but lay narrative claim to anyway, the world is rife with books known, loved, and respected that also capture the essence of place—books where setting itself is one of the strongest characters.</p><p><a href="https://www.stacker.com/new-york/">Stacker</a> compiled a list of books set in New York from <a href="https://goodreads.com/">Goodreads</a>. Whether you're looking for a good read set in the state you call home, or you're looking to expand your curiosity with a writer you're already familiar with, we've got you covered.</p><p><b>You may also like:</b> <a href="https://stacker.com/new-york/best-counties-retire-new-york">Best counties to retire to in New York</a></p>

Books set in New York

Every state has its hallmark writers. Mississippi has William Faulkner and his incomparable (fictional) Yoknapatawpha County and Missouri can lay claim to Mark Twain. The state of Maine is gifted with Pulitzer winner Richard Russo and horror icon Stephen King. Rural Pennsylvania is the playground of the much-heralded (and occasionally maligned) John Updike, and when many bibliophiles think of New Jersey, they also think of Richard Ford's series of novels featuring recurring Everyman character Frank Bascombe. Illinois can lay claim to William Maxwell, Sandra Cisneros, and Adam Langer, among numerous others. And what reader can think of Washington State without contending with the sparkle-vampire yarns of Stephanie Meyer?

What makes authors like these inextricably associated with a particular state is not simply the matter of their having been born there or choosing to live there. The connection, from a writerly standpoint, is deeper than that—their work, nearly all of it, is set in "their" state.

Of course, there are certainly exceptions. Whether a writer sets a tale in the town where they went to college or spent part of their childhood—like Donna Tartt's "The Secret History" and its New England arts school setting and the almost-factual small town of Jo Ann Beard's "In Zanesville," respectively—or crafts a story that follows a social or political theme to a location they know little about but lay narrative claim to anyway, the world is rife with books known, loved, and respected that also capture the essence of place—books where setting itself is one of the strongest characters.

Stacker compiled a list of books set in New York from Goodreads . Whether you're looking for a good read set in the state you call home, or you're looking to expand your curiosity with a writer you're already familiar with, we've got you covered.

You may also like: Best counties to retire to in New York

<p>- Rating: 3.93 (4.6 million ratings)<br> - Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald<br> - Published: April 10, 1925<br> - Genres: Classics, Fiction, School, Historical Fiction<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/4671.The_Great_Gatsby">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

The Great Gatsby

- Rating: 3.93 (4.6 million ratings) - Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald - Published: April 10, 1925 - Genres: Classics, Fiction, School, Historical Fiction - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 4.28 (429,814 ratings)<br> - Author: Betty Smith<br> - Published: August 18, 1943<br> - Genres: Classics, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Young Adult<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/14891.A_Tree_Grows_in_Brooklyn">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

- Rating: 4.28 (429,814 ratings) - Author: Betty Smith - Published: August 18, 1943 - Genres: Classics, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Young Adult - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 4.05 (166,830 ratings)<br> - Author: Caleb Carr<br> - Published: March 15, 1994<br> - Genres: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Fiction, Thriller<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/40024.The_Alienist">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

The Alienist (Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, #1)

- Rating: 4.05 (166,830 ratings) - Author: Caleb Carr - Published: March 15, 1994 - Genres: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Fiction, Thriller - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 3.81 (3.2 million ratings)<br> - Author: J.D. Salinger<br> - Published: January 1, 1951<br> - Genres: Classics, Fiction, Young Adult, Literature<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/5107.The_Catcher_in_the_Rye">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

The Catcher in the Rye

- Rating: 3.81 (3.2 million ratings) - Author: J.D. Salinger - Published: January 1, 1951 - Genres: Classics, Fiction, Young Adult, Literature - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 3.83 (29,257 ratings)<br> - Author: Meg Cabot<br> - Published: January 6, 2004<br> - Genres: Chick Lit, Romance, Fiction, Contemporary<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/93723.Boy_Meets_Girl">Read more on Goodreads</a></p><p><b>You may also like:</b> <a href="https://stacker.com/new-york/highest-rated-breweries-new-york">Highest-rated breweries in New York</a></p>

Boy Meets Girl (Boy, #2)

- Rating: 3.83 (29,257 ratings) - Author: Meg Cabot - Published: January 6, 2004 - Genres: Chick Lit, Romance, Fiction, Contemporary - Read more on Goodreads

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<p>- Rating: 4.37 (384,223 ratings)<br> - Author: Mario Puzo<br> - Published: March 10, 1969<br> - Genres: Fiction, Classics, Crime, Thriller<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22034.The_Godfather">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

The Godfather (The Godfather, #1)

- Rating: 4.37 (384,223 ratings) - Author: Mario Puzo - Published: March 10, 1969 - Genres: Fiction, Classics, Crime, Thriller - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 4.10 (89,831 ratings)<br> - Author: O. Henry<br> - Published: December 10, 1905<br> - Genres: Classics, Short Stories, Fiction, Christmas<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/143534.The_Gift_of_the_Magi">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

The Gift of the Magi

- Rating: 4.10 (89,831 ratings) - Author: O. Henry - Published: December 10, 1905 - Genres: Classics, Short Stories, Fiction, Christmas - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 3.89 (41,379 ratings)<br> - Author: E.L. Doctorow<br> - Published: January 1, 1975<br> - Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Classics, Novels<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/175675.Ragtime">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

- Rating: 3.89 (41,379 ratings) - Author: E.L. Doctorow - Published: January 1, 1975 - Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Classics, Novels - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 3.90 (211,843 ratings)<br> - Author: Stephen King<br> - Published: September 29, 1980<br> - Genres: Horror, Fiction, Thriller, Science Fiction<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/233667.Firestarter">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

Firestarter

- Rating: 3.90 (211,843 ratings) - Author: Stephen King - Published: September 29, 1980 - Genres: Horror, Fiction, Thriller, Science Fiction - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 4.18 (580,501 ratings)<br> - Author: Daniel Keyes<br> - Published: April 1, 1959<br> - Genres: Fiction, Classics, Science Fiction, Young Adult<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18373.Flowers_for_Algernon">Read more on Goodreads</a></p><p><b>You may also like:</b> <a href="https://stacker.com/new-york/highest-rated-museums-new-york">Highest-rated museums in New York</a></p>

Flowers for Algernon

- Rating: 4.18 (580,501 ratings) - Author: Daniel Keyes - Published: April 1, 1959 - Genres: Fiction, Classics, Science Fiction, Young Adult - Read more on Goodreads

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<p>- Rating: 4.15 (202,894 ratings)<br> - Author: E.L. Konigsburg<br> - Published: January 1, 1967<br> - Genres: Fiction, Childrens, Young Adult, Middle Grade<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3980.From_the_Mixed_Up_Files_of_Mrs_Basil_E_Frankweiler">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

- Rating: 4.15 (202,894 ratings) - Author: E.L. Konigsburg - Published: January 1, 1967 - Genres: Fiction, Childrens, Young Adult, Middle Grade - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 3.92 (33,071 ratings)<br> - Author: Dashiell Hammett<br> - Published: January 1, 1934<br> - Genres: Mystery, Fiction, Classics, Crime<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/80616.The_Thin_Man">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

The Thin Man

- Rating: 3.92 (33,071 ratings) - Author: Dashiell Hammett - Published: January 1, 1934 - Genres: Mystery, Fiction, Classics, Crime - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 3.97 (406,276 ratings)<br> - Author: Jonathan Safran Foer<br> - Published: January 1, 2005<br> - Genres: Fiction, Contemporary, Historical Fiction, Novels<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/4588.Extremely_Loud_Incredibly_Close">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

- Rating: 3.97 (406,276 ratings) - Author: Jonathan Safran Foer - Published: January 1, 2005 - Genres: Fiction, Contemporary, Historical Fiction, Novels - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 3.96 (91,755 ratings)<br> - Author: Edith Wharton<br> - Published: October 14, 1905<br> - Genres: Classics, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literature<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17728.The_House_of_Mirth">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

The House of Mirth

- Rating: 3.96 (91,755 ratings) - Author: Edith Wharton - Published: October 14, 1905 - Genres: Classics, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literature - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 4.07 (2,443 ratings)<br> - Author: Valentine Davies<br> - Published: January 1, 1947<br> - Genres: Christmas, Fiction, Classics, Holiday<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/375108.Miracle_on_34th_Street">Read more on Goodreads</a></p><p><b>You may also like:</b> <a href="https://www.stacker.com/new-york/highest-rated-ipas-new-york">Highest rated IPAs in New York</a></p>

Miracle on 34th Street

- Rating: 4.07 (2,443 ratings) - Author: Valentine Davies - Published: January 1, 1947 - Genres: Christmas, Fiction, Classics, Holiday - Read more on Goodreads

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<p>- Rating: 3.86 (240,174 ratings)<br> - Author: Truman Capote<br> - Published: October 28, 1958<br> - Genres: Classics, Short Stories, Romance, Literature<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/251688.Breakfast_at_Tiffany_s_and_Three_Stories">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

Breakfast at Tiffany's and Three Stories

- Rating: 3.86 (240,174 ratings) - Author: Truman Capote - Published: October 28, 1958 - Genres: Classics, Short Stories, Romance, Literature - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 3.67 (14,779 ratings)<br> - Author: Mary McCarthy<br> - Published: January 1, 1963<br> - Genres: Fiction, Classics, Historical Fiction, Novels<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/387348.The_Group">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

- Rating: 3.67 (14,779 ratings) - Author: Mary McCarthy - Published: January 1, 1963 - Genres: Fiction, Classics, Historical Fiction, Novels - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 3.72 (62,502 ratings)<br> - Author: Washington Irving<br> - Published: January 1, 1820<br> - Genres: Classics, Horror, Fiction, Short Stories<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/93261.The_Legend_of_Sleepy_Hollow">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

- Rating: 3.72 (62,502 ratings) - Author: Washington Irving - Published: January 1, 1820 - Genres: Classics, Horror, Fiction, Short Stories - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 3.90 (119,838 ratings)<br> - Author: E.B. White<br> - Published: January 1, 1945<br> - Genres: Childrens, Classics, Fiction, Fantasy<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/138959.Stuart_Little">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

Stuart Little

- Rating: 3.90 (119,838 ratings) - Author: E.B. White - Published: January 1, 1945 - Genres: Childrens, Classics, Fiction, Fantasy - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 4.03 (63,545 ratings)<br> - Author: George Selden<br> - Published: January 1, 1960<br> - Genres: Childrens, Fiction, Classics, Fantasy<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/24384.The_Cricket_in_Times_Square">Read more on Goodreads</a></p><p><b>You may also like:</b> <a href="https://stacker.com/new-york/fastest-growing-counties-new-york">Fastest-growing counties in New York</a></p>

The Cricket in Times Square (Chester Cricket and His Friends, #1)

- Rating: 4.03 (63,545 ratings) - Author: George Selden - Published: January 1, 1960 - Genres: Childrens, Fiction, Classics, Fantasy - Read more on Goodreads

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<p>- Rating: 3.80 (247,375 ratings)<br> - Author: Meg Cabot<br> - Published: September 19, 2000<br> - Genres: Young Adult, Romance, Fiction, Contemporary<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/568617.The_Princess_Diaries">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

The Princess Diaries (The Princess Diaries, #1)

- Rating: 3.80 (247,375 ratings) - Author: Meg Cabot - Published: September 19, 2000 - Genres: Young Adult, Romance, Fiction, Contemporary - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 3.55 (212,733 ratings)<br> - Author: Arthur Miller<br> - Published: January 1, 1949<br> - Genres: Classics, Plays, Fiction, Drama<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12898.Death_of_a_Salesman">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

Death of a Salesman

- Rating: 3.55 (212,733 ratings) - Author: Arthur Miller - Published: January 1, 1949 - Genres: Classics, Plays, Fiction, Drama - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 4.29 (2.5 million ratings)<br> - Author: Rick Riordan<br> - Published: June 28, 2005<br> - Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult, Mythology, Fiction<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/28187.The_Lightning_Thief">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #1)

- Rating: 4.29 (2.5 million ratings) - Author: Rick Riordan - Published: June 28, 2005 - Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult, Mythology, Fiction - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 3.96 (157,903 ratings)<br> - Author: Edith Wharton<br> - Published: October 1, 1920<br> - Genres: Classics, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Romance<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/53835.The_Age_of_Innocence">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

The Age of Innocence

- Rating: 3.96 (157,903 ratings) - Author: Edith Wharton - Published: October 1, 1920 - Genres: Classics, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Romance - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 4.08 (1.9 million ratings)<br> - Author: Cassandra Clare<br> - Published: May 27, 2007<br> - Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult, Paranormal, Romance<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/256683.City_of_Bones">Read more on Goodreads</a></p><p><b>You may also like:</b> <a href="https://stacker.com/new-york/highest-earning-cities-new-york">Highest-earning cities in New York</a></p>

City of Bones (The Mortal Instruments, #1)

- Rating: 4.08 (1.9 million ratings) - Author: Cassandra Clare - Published: May 27, 2007 - Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult, Paranormal, Romance - Read more on Goodreads

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<p>- Rating: 3.62 (14,323 ratings)<br> - Author: Washington Irving<br> - Published: January 1, 1819<br> - Genres: Classics, Short Stories, Fiction, Fantasy<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/462182.Rip_Van_Winkle">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

Rip Van Winkle

- Rating: 3.62 (14,323 ratings) - Author: Washington Irving - Published: January 1, 1819 - Genres: Classics, Short Stories, Fiction, Fantasy - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 3.76 (9,378 ratings)<br> - Author: Alice Hoffman<br> - Published: January 1, 1990<br> - Genres: Fiction, Magical Realism, Historical Fiction, Fantasy<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/163815.Seventh_Heaven">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

Seventh Heaven

- Rating: 3.76 (9,378 ratings) - Author: Alice Hoffman - Published: January 1, 1990 - Genres: Fiction, Magical Realism, Historical Fiction, Fantasy - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 3.40 (2,518 ratings)<br> - Author: Nicole Mary Kelby<br> - Published: April 10, 2014<br> - Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Historical, Fashion<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/21258630-the-pink-suit">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

The Pink Suit

- Rating: 3.40 (2,518 ratings) - Author: Nicole Mary Kelby - Published: April 10, 2014 - Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Historical, Fashion - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 3.86 (27,526 ratings)<br> - Author: Toni Morrison<br> - Published: January 1, 1992<br> - Genres: Fiction, Classics, Historical Fiction, African American<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11341.Jazz">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

- Rating: 3.86 (27,526 ratings) - Author: Toni Morrison - Published: January 1, 1992 - Genres: Fiction, Classics, Historical Fiction, African American - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 3.96 (152,287 ratings)<br> - Author: Peter Benchley<br> - Published: May 6, 1974<br> - Genres: Horror, Fiction, Thriller, Classics<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/126232.Jaws">Read more on Goodreads</a></p><p><b>You may also like:</b> <a href="https://stacker.com/new-york/highest-rated-things-do-new-york-according-tripadvisor">Highest-rated things to do in New York, according to Tripadvisor</a></p>

Jaws (Jaws #1)

- Rating: 3.96 (152,287 ratings) - Author: Peter Benchley - Published: May 6, 1974 - Genres: Horror, Fiction, Thriller, Classics - Read more on Goodreads

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<p>- Rating: 4.30 (8,040 ratings)<br> - Author: E.B. White<br> - Published: January 1, 1948<br> - Genres: Nonfiction, New York, Essays, Travel<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10814.Here_Is_New_York">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

Here Is New York

- Rating: 4.30 (8,040 ratings) - Author: E.B. White - Published: January 1, 1948 - Genres: Nonfiction, New York, Essays, Travel - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 4.16 (37,346 ratings)<br> - Author: Edward Rutherfurd<br> - Published: September 3, 2009<br> - Genres: Historical Fiction, Fiction, Historical, New York<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/8258519-new-york">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

- Rating: 4.16 (37,346 ratings) - Author: Edward Rutherfurd - Published: September 3, 2009 - Genres: Historical Fiction, Fiction, Historical, New York - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 4.07 (63,648 ratings)<br> - Author: Laura Ingalls Wilder<br> - Published: January 1, 1933<br> - Genres: Classics, Historical Fiction, Childrens, Fiction<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/8252.Farmer_Boy">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

Farmer Boy (Little House, #2)

- Rating: 4.07 (63,648 ratings) - Author: Laura Ingalls Wilder - Published: January 1, 1933 - Genres: Classics, Historical Fiction, Childrens, Fiction - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 4.07 (71,247 ratings)<br> - Author: Jean Craighead George<br> - Published: January 1, 1959<br> - Genres: Fiction, Young Adult, Classics, Childrens<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/41667.My_Side_of_the_Mountain">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

My Side of the Mountain (Mountain, #1)

- Rating: 4.07 (71,247 ratings) - Author: Jean Craighead George - Published: January 1, 1959 - Genres: Fiction, Young Adult, Classics, Childrens - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 4.16 (56,122 ratings)<br> - Author: Brian Selznick<br> - Published: September 13, 2011<br> - Genres: Historical Fiction, Fiction, Middle Grade, Young Adult<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10128428-wonderstruck">Read more on Goodreads</a></p><p><b>You may also like:</b> <a href="https://stacker.com/new-york/highest-rated-football-recruits-new-york-over-last-20-years">Highest-rated football recruits from New York over the last 20 years</a></p>

Wonderstruck

- Rating: 4.16 (56,122 ratings) - Author: Brian Selznick - Published: September 13, 2011 - Genres: Historical Fiction, Fiction, Middle Grade, Young Adult - Read more on Goodreads

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<p>- Rating: 3.85 (2,105 ratings)<br> - Author: Jenna Blum<br> - Published: July 1, 2014<br> - Genres: Historical Fiction, Short Stories, Fiction, World War II<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18693913-grand-central">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

Grand Central: Original Stories of Postwar Love and Reunion

- Rating: 3.85 (2,105 ratings) - Author: Jenna Blum - Published: July 1, 2014 - Genres: Historical Fiction, Short Stories, Fiction, World War II - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 3.29 (2,478 ratings)<br> - Author: Jean Zimmerman<br> - Published: June 19, 2012<br> - Genres: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Fiction, Historical<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12999143-the-orphanmaster">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

The Orphanmaster

- Rating: 3.29 (2,478 ratings) - Author: Jean Zimmerman - Published: June 19, 2012 - Genres: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Fiction, Historical - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 4.32 (46,978 ratings)<br> - Author: Kacen Callender<br> - Published: May 5, 2020<br> - Genres: LGBT, Young Adult, Contemporary, Romance<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/51931067-felix-ever-after">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

Felix Ever After

- Rating: 4.32 (46,978 ratings) - Author: Kacen Callender - Published: May 5, 2020 - Genres: LGBT, Young Adult, Contemporary, Romance - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 3.87 (15,434 ratings)<br> - Author: Lyndsay Faye<br> - Published: March 15, 2012<br> - Genres: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Fiction, Historical<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15810132-the-gods-of-gotham">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

The Gods of Gotham (Timothy Wilde, #1)

- Rating: 3.87 (15,434 ratings) - Author: Lyndsay Faye - Published: March 15, 2012 - Genres: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Fiction, Historical - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 4.22 (240,240 ratings)<br> - Author: Stephen King<br> - Published: May 1, 1987<br> - Genres: Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Science Fiction<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/5094.The_Drawing_of_the_Three">Read more on Goodreads</a></p><p><b>You may also like:</b> <a href="https://www.stacker.com/new-york/cities-new-york-most-living-poverty">Cities in New York with the most living in poverty</a></p>

The Drawing of the Three

- Rating: 4.22 (240,240 ratings) - Author: Stephen King - Published: May 1, 1987 - Genres: Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Science Fiction - Read more on Goodreads

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<p>- Rating: 4.07 (52,816 ratings)<br> - Author: Susan Meissner<br> - Published: February 4, 2014<br> - Genres: Historical Fiction, Fiction, Historical, Romance<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18114142-a-fall-of-marigolds">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

A Fall of Marigolds

- Rating: 4.07 (52,816 ratings) - Author: Susan Meissner - Published: February 4, 2014 - Genres: Historical Fiction, Fiction, Historical, Romance - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 4.03 (60,985 ratings)<br> - Author: James Baldwin<br> - Published: May 18, 1953<br> - Genres: Fiction, Classics, African American, Race<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17143.Go_Tell_It_on_the_Mountain">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

Go Tell It on the Mountain

- Rating: 4.03 (60,985 ratings) - Author: James Baldwin - Published: May 18, 1953 - Genres: Fiction, Classics, African American, Race - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 4.18 (87,252 ratings)<br> - Author: William Styron<br> - Published: January 1, 1979<br> - Genres: Fiction, Classics, Historical Fiction, Holocaust<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/228560.Sophie_s_Choice">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

Sophie's Choice

- Rating: 4.18 (87,252 ratings) - Author: William Styron - Published: January 1, 1979 - Genres: Fiction, Classics, Historical Fiction, Holocaust - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 3.83 (8,347 ratings)<br> - Author: Anna Quindlen<br> - Published: April 9, 1991<br> - Genres: Fiction, Contemporary, Chick Lit, Novels<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/77478.Object_Lessons">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

Object Lessons

- Rating: 3.83 (8,347 ratings) - Author: Anna Quindlen - Published: April 9, 1991 - Genres: Fiction, Contemporary, Chick Lit, Novels - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 3.89 (28,852 ratings)<br> - Author: Edwidge Danticat<br> - Published: April 1, 1994<br> - Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Contemporary, Novels<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/5186.Breath_Eyes_Memory">Read more on Goodreads</a></p><p><b>You may also like:</b> <a href="https://stacker.com/new-york/most-popular-girl-names-80s-new-york">Most popular girl names in the 80s in New York</a></p>

Breath, Eyes, Memory

- Rating: 3.89 (28,852 ratings) - Author: Edwidge Danticat - Published: April 1, 1994 - Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Contemporary, Novels - Read more on Goodreads

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<p>- Rating: 4.30 (20,892 ratings)<br> - Author: James Baldwin<br> - Published: May 1, 1962<br> - Genres: Fiction, Classics, LGBT, Queer<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/38474.Another_Country">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

Another Country

- Rating: 4.30 (20,892 ratings) - Author: James Baldwin - Published: May 1, 1962 - Genres: Fiction, Classics, LGBT, Queer - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 4.07 (194,884 ratings)<br> - Author: Amor Towles<br> - Published: July 26, 2011<br> - Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Historical, New York<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11523279-rules-of-civility">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

Rules of Civility

- Rating: 4.07 (194,884 ratings) - Author: Amor Towles - Published: July 26, 2011 - Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Historical, New York - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 3.76 (84,776 ratings)<br> - Author: Meg Cabot<br> - Published: December 27, 2005<br> - Genres: Chick Lit, Mystery, Romance, Fiction<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/23220.Size_12_Is_Not_Fat">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

Size 12 Is Not Fat (Heather Wells, #1)

- Rating: 3.76 (84,776 ratings) - Author: Meg Cabot - Published: December 27, 2005 - Genres: Chick Lit, Mystery, Romance, Fiction - Read more on Goodreads

<p>- Rating: 3.63 (10,785 ratings)<br> - Author: Rachel Cohn<br> - Published: March 1, 2002<br> - Genres: Young Adult, Fiction, Contemporary, Teen<br> - <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10697134-gingerbread">Read more on Goodreads</a></p>

Gingerbread (Cyd Charisse, #1)

- Rating: 3.63 (10,785 ratings) - Author: Rachel Cohn - Published: March 1, 2002 - Genres: Young Adult, Fiction, Contemporary, Teen - Read more on Goodreads

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Reading Recommendations From Book Review Staffers

Here’s what they’ve enjoyed in 2024..

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The early part of a year can mean new books to read, or it can mean catching up on older ones we haven’t gotten to yet. This week, Gilbert Cruz chats with the Book Review’s Sarah Lyall and Sadie Stein about titles from both categories that have held their interest lately, including a 2022 biography of John Donne, a book about female artists who nurtured an interest in the supernatural, and the history of a Jim Crow-era mental asylum, along with a gripping new novel by Janice Hallett.

“It’s just so deft,” Stein says of Hallett’s new thriller, “The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels.” “It’s so funny. It seems like she’s having a lot of fun. One thing I would say, and I don’t think this is spoiling it, is, if there comes a moment when you think you might want to stop, keep going and trust her. I think it’s rare to be able to say that with that level of confidence.”

Here are the books discussed in this week’s episode:

“Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne,” by Katherine Rundell

“The Other Side: A Story of Women in Art and the Spirit World,” by Jennifer Higgie

“The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels,” by Janice Hallett

“Madness: Race and Insanity in a Jim Crow Asylum,” by Antonia Hylton

(Briefly mentioned: “You Dreamed of Empires,” by Álvaro Enrigue, “Beautyland,” by Marie-Helene Bertino, and “Martyr!,” by Kaveh Akbar.)

We would love to hear your thoughts about this episode, and about the Book Review’s podcast in general. You can send them to [email protected] .

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The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society

In his Decretum , a tenth-century manual on canon law, Bishop Burchard of Worms directed priests to ask female parishioners if they had inserted live fish into their vaginas and kept them there “for a while” until they were dead, then cooked and fed them to their husbands to stimulate passion. He prescribed two years of penance on the appropriate fast days for a woman who had done this. Medieval theologians took the insatiable lusts of women very seriously: as a friend pointed out, the procedure was apparently considered two thirds as bad as accidentally killing one’s baby, which is discussed two items down in the Decretum , for which three years of penance were prescribed.

In The Once and Future Sex , Eleanor Janega notes that the likelihood of medieval women having performed such a maneuver is “probably low…no matter how lacking their sex lives might have been.” Did Burchard believe it was a common practice? It is hard to understand the mechanics, just for starters. His Decretum was based on earlier sources, so he might have carried his stipulation to priests across from his exemplar unthinkingly, but medieval theologians were often concerned that ecclesiastics could put novel ideas of sin into parishioners’ heads during confession. For the question to have been asked, a husband’s being served an ill-used fish had to have been a legitimate concern.

Janega’s book is wide-ranging—she takes something of a trawler net approach to the Middle Ages, covering a big area but not always managing to supply details or nuance. She illustrates, often hilariously, the ways women were oppressed, as indeed they were before and have been since, though the particular flavor of oppression has changed. In the medieval era, as now, women were expected to live up to impossible standards of beauty and were defined as “scientifically” different from men, even if the ideas of female beauty and biology were not the same. Janega also argues that women’s work was overlooked in the Middle Ages, as it is today. This is a claim that might irk some medievalists.

Burchard, like many medieval thinkers, thought of women as “sex-addled” and “insatiable in their demands.” In this, Janega argues, “the medieval concept of women’s sexuality looks almost nothing like ours, except that it was considered wrong.” In his Etymologies— a seventh-century encyclopedia explaining human knowledge using (spurious) word origins—Isidore of Seville tells us that “the word femina [woman] comes from the Greek derived from the force of fire because her concupiscence is very passionate: women are more libidinous than men.” About two hundred years earlier, Saint Jerome likewise asserted that “women’s love is…insatiable; put it out, it bursts into flame; give it plenty, it is again in need.” A Latin poem from thirteenth-century northern France or England advises men not to marry and describes the average woman thus:

Her lustful loins are never stilled By just one man she’s unfulfilled She’ll spread her legs to all the men But, ever hungry, won’t say “When.”

According to the humoral theory that underpinned much medieval thought, women were cold, wet creatures who gravitated toward men, who were hot and dry. In this, women were thought to be similar to cold-blooded animals like snakes that seek the heat emanating from humans. A thirteenth-century medical treatise took this idea a step further, stating that since women are inherently bad (what with the whole debacle involving Eve and the apple), a woman has a “greater desire for coitus than a man, for something foul is drawn to the good.”

Many medieval writers seem to have agreed on what made these horny creatures sexually attractive to men. Texts that describe the appearance of the ideal woman have a lot in common. A number of them describe her as having blond hair, white skin, swelling lips, white teeth, and good breath. These qualities are depressingly familiar from our own day. But some aspects of medieval female beauty may surprise us. Thin, dark eyebrows and high foreheads were prized; the Roman de la rose praised women with “small mouths.” Geoffrey of Vinsauf was especially taken with a “neck like a white marble column,” while other writers compared the ideal neck to that of a swan, heron, or antelope. Matthew of Vendôme praised “dainty” and “modest” breasts, a view shared by Guillaume de Machaut, who liked them “white, firm, high-seated/pointed, round,” but—importantly—“small enough.” In Troilus and Criseyde , Chaucer describes Criseyde’s “brestes rounde and lite” (as well as her “armes smale” and her “sydes longe”). As for the belly, Matthew of Vendôme would have been horrified by the gym-sculpted abs many today prize, instead praising the ideal of a “luscious little belly” that protruded.

As in the twenty-first century, in the Middle Ages the physical attributes considered beautiful were indices of wealth. A little potbelly meant you had leisure time, just as milky white skin meant you did not labor outdoors. In the thirteenth-century Old French Roman de silence , there is a scene in which a beautiful woman uses the juices of a plant to give herself a fake tan and disguise herself as a man of “low station.” Today, the converse among white people is a sign of being upper-class—tanned skin suggests leisure hours spent in sunny climes.

Some writers showed an awareness of female sexual anatomy that might surprise modern readers. As far back as the thirteenth century at least one of them, Pietro d’Abano, had noticed the existence of the clitoris: he wrote that women could be aroused

by having the upper orifice near their pubis rubbed; in this way the indiscreet, or curious [ curiosi ] bring them to orgasm. For the pleasure that can be obtained from this part of the body is comparable to that obtained from the tip of the penis.

The eleventh-century Persian philosopher and physician Ibn Sina—known in the medieval West as Avicenna—wrote that men should caress a woman’s “breasts and pubis, and enfold their partners in their arms, without really performing the act.” This last clause reminds us that although some medieval men appeared to understand the mechanics of female pleasure, they nonetheless thought that the point of sex—the main “act”—was penetration, hopefully leading to procreation. Some writers suggested that for a woman to conceive she had to experience pleasure, which is heartening, but Janega justly cautions that this could have “dehumanizing consequences,” because it was thought that sex workers were “incapable of pleasure and driven solely by an interest in money” and could not become pregnant. The biological fathers of infants born to sex workers could thereby absolve themselves of responsibility for their children.

Janega’s final chapter on women’s work is a feast of beguiling detail. Here the lives of ordinary women surface from the records in a way that is sometimes impossible in the earlier chapters on beauty and biology, where most sources are the literary and philosophical writings of a learned male elite. We’re told, for example, that in 1327 Alice de Brightenoch and Lucy de Pykeringe were sentenced to jail time for theft: both women allowed people to bake bread in their ovens for a fee, but they “falsely, wickedly, and maliciously” stole from their neighbors by siphoning off dough through a hole in a table, beneath which an accomplice was stationed.

Here the argument is that women “were working at every level of society alongside or in partnership with men—and received almost no credit for doing so.” This is a large claim that I don’t really go along with. The picture is surely more complex. In her brilliant recent biography of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, Marion Turner notes, for example, that there were new economic opportunities for women in the aftermath of the Black Death in Europe, when their right to trade as femmes sole was formalized, allowing them to run businesses, train apprentices, and take care of their own taxes. 1 In other words, women were working for themselves.

When women did work in partnerships with men, it is hard to know if they were given credit for what they did. So it pays to follow the money and examine transfers of property after death. Barbara Hanawalt’s work on peasant families in medieval England reveals that 65 percent of men made their wives executors. As she observes, “Most men leaving wills, therefore, trusted their wives to raise a family of young children and run both the house and lands.” 2 That surely suggests confidence in what women could do. The same was probably true in other social classes. In 1448 the Norfolk gentrywoman Margaret Paston wrote to her husband in London and asked him to buy “1lb of almonds,” “1lb of sugar,” and “some cloth for gowns,” as well as “two or three short poleaxes” and “some crossbows.” She had been left behind on the family’s estates to raise the children, run the manors, and protect the properties from attack.

Of course, even if wives had a degree of economic power and were valued by their husbands, that does not mean all women’s work was valued, especially that of women at the fringes of society. Sex work was disapproved of but still permitted in some law codes. Some writers even felt it was necessary. Both Augustine and Aquinas wrote that if sex work did not exist, men would have too much pent-up sexual energy, especially in urban areas, which could lead to rioting and violence.

In London sex workers had to wear a special striped hood and were forbidden to live in the city itself. A statute of 1393 stated that they should “keep themselves to the places thereunto assigned, this is to say, the Stews [bathhouse brothels] on the other side of [the river] Thames, and Cokkeslane.” Janega writes that sex workers found outside the Stews risked being “stripped to their waist” as a “powerful form of public shaming,” though the Anglo-Norman source doesn’t seem to say this. It states that a woman would have to forfeit the “garnyment q[u]ele use per le dessus et le chaperon”—“the upper garment she shall be wearing, together with her hood.” “Garnyment” can mean “garment,” but it seems most often to mean an outer layer—the Middle English and Anglo-Norman dictionaries define it variously as “a coat, cloak, gown”—as well as armor or riding gear. So it appears more likely that the women, rather than risking public shame, stood to lose the cloaks and hoods that advertised them as sex workers, thereby temporarily impeding their ability to work.

Janega also writes that when sex workers died they could not be buried in consecrated ground. I failed to find a source to support this idea. She cites the example of Crossbones Graveyard in London, which is a cemetery on the south bank of the Thames in an area where brothels were situated in the medieval period. But there is no archaeological evidence that the graveyard itself is medieval, and the first mention of it in written sources is by the antiquarian John Stow in 1598. Stow was a great collector and preserver of medieval manuscripts, so he is often a useful authority, but his sourcing of the information in this case amounts to vague hearsay:

I have heard of ancient men, of good credit, report, that these single women were forbidden the rites of the church, so long as they continued that sinful life, and were excluded from Christian burial, if they were not reconciled before their death.

The Once and Future Sex is great fun; I often snorted aloud while reading it. Janega’s discussion is joyously broad, but she skitters in places rather than digging down. “Women’s infidelity was a much larger concern than men’s,” she observes. Katherine Harvey’s 2021 The Fires of Lust: Sex in the Middle Ages adds nuance here. Harvey cites multiple examples from law codes that show how women were punished for adultery, yet she notes that court records from northern France and Flanders reveal that adulterous men, not women, were more often punished publicly:

In Arras (1328), five times as many men were fined for adultery, and in Tournai (1470) fourteen times as many men were punished. In late medieval Ghent, Bruges, and Ypres, the ratio for adultery convictions was approximately 80:20 male to female.

The Once and Future Sex is not aimed at an academic audience. Literary scholars will not be surprised that “by analyzing literature, we can learn about the cultures of a period, what people considered important, and what made them tick.” Many would dispute the description of the Roman de la rose as a “novel” or the Middle English poem Pearl as an “epic.” There are several of these infelicities. Janega states that Alison, the protagonist of Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale,” is “a woman who is willing to have sex with her suitor in a washing tub.” If Chaucer had described sex in a washtub, I would consider it my civic duty to quote it, but the text is clear: three tubs used for kneading bread hang from the ceiling, and once Alison’s husband is safely asleep in one of them (part of a scheme to enable the adultery), she and her suitor get out of theirs and steal off: “Doun of the laddre stalketh Nicholay, And Alisoun ful softe adoun she spedde;/Withouten wordes mo they goon to bedde.” (“Down the ladder stalks Nicholas and Alison softly sped down; without words they go to bed.”) There they engage in the “bisynesse of myrthe and of solas,/Til that the belle of laudes gan to rynge” (“task of mirth and of solace/Till the bell of morning rang out”).

These are small details. Does it matter for the book’s argument that Nicholas and Alison were not in a washing tub? Does it matter that Pearl— a jewellike poem about grief—is recast as an epic? Almost certainly not, but there are places where this highly readable book opts for generalization over particularity, such as the suggestion that The Canterbury Tales is “a compendium of anecdotes about what was wrong with women.” That’s a view that omits “The Knight’s Tale,” with its idealized presentation of Emelye, or “The Franklin’s Tale , ” in which a woman loves her husband so much that she prepares to kill herself when she is wooed by an unwanted suitor and then lists a catalog of twenty-one other faithful women from history and mythology who have stayed similarly true.

This kind of reductiveness risks telling a blanket story of oppression. One example deserves unpacking. In a section on life at court, Janega writes that

women’s expected duties included carrying the lady of the house’s train as she made her way to chapel and helping with embroidery. The men’s might include being called to war or sent on diplomatic missions.

It’s a passage that doesn’t ring true. Juxtaposing embroidery with diplomacy and war and thereby casting it as something boring and contained repeats a tired patriarchal categorization of art forms that consigns needlework to irrelevance precisely because it was often practiced by women.

A single work sees off this idea: the famous Bayeux Tapestry is a 230-foot piece of embroidery depicting the events leading up to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. It depicts, as a recent work put it, “political intrigue, extreme violence [and] graphic nudity.” 3 This is stitchwork that is big and sexy and political; it was most likely made by female artisans. Janega’s characterization here is at odds with what she says elsewhere in the book. “Medieval Europeans regarded embroidery as an art,” she writes, citing the early Irish law code Bretha im Fhuillemu Gell , which states that “the woman who embroiders earns more profit even than queens.” Why treat it with flippancy elsewhere?

Her depiction of court women as creatures consigned to a life of sad train-carrying also feels misplaced. On February 20, 1440, Helene Kottanner, a servant of Queen Elizabeth of Hungary, took part in an audacious plan to secure the succession by smuggling the Hungarian crown out of the stronghold of Visegrád in a pillow. The crown was placed onto a sled and rushed to the queen; within hours of its arrival she gave birth to a baby boy, Ladislaus the Posthumous, who was crowned king of Hungary three months later. Kottanner almost certainly did carry her lady’s train and help with embroidery, but she also engineered a coup during a political crisis and recounted it afterward in a memoir.

And it wasn’t only men who were “called to war or sent on diplomatic missions.” In a later part of the book Janega discusses Eleanor of Aquitaine, who negotiated with Pope Innocent II on her husband’s behalf and went on the Second Crusade. Janega might just as well have pointed to Urraca, the twelfth-century queen of Castile, described by multiple sources as “a leader of armies” in battles she had with Moorish forces, rebellious magnates, and her estranged husband, Alfonso el Batallador (Alfonso the Battler). Of course, these women were royal, so their experiences were unusual, but such examples are also important.

As a reader of history, I don’t just want to read about drudgery and discrimination; I want to read about the women who gamed the patriarchal system as well. As a historian, I believe feminist history is at its best when it is twofold—delineating structures of oppression but also not allowing our own patriarchal biases to restrict our view, making us assume that women were voiceless and powerless just because traditional histories of the period haven’t thought their endeavors worth discussing.

Janega is doing something important. To make the Middle Ages—a period so widely misunderstood—legible and exciting is vital work. My hunch is that historians do a disservice to the general reader when they shun complexity in favor of broad-brush abstractions, because the delight is in the detail. What specialist or nonspecialist is not enthralled to learn that Burchard of Worms seems to have thought women put live fish into their vaginas?

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More by Mary Wellesley

Hair in the medieval period was a marker of identity, a symbol of power, and a focus of erotic interest, freighted with religious significance.

October 20, 2022 issue

Diane Watt, a professor of medieval literature, shows that the earliest English women writers lived centuries before Julian of Norwich or Margery Kempe.

October 22, 2020 issue

Mary Wellesley’s The Gilded Page: The Secret Lives of Medieval Manuscripts was published in 2021. She is working on a book about women burned at the stake. (March 2024)

Marion Turner, The Wife of Bath: A Biography (Princeton University Press, 2023), p. 14.   ↩

Barbara A. Hanawalt, The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England (Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 154.  ↩

David Musgrove and Michael Lewis, The Story of the Bayeux Tapestry: Unraveling the Norman Conquest (Thames and Hudson, 2021), p. 9.  ↩

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