Since I spend so much time reading long-form non-fiction online, I’m going to link to my favourite one every week for anyone who’s interested in similar reading.

Same-sex marriage seems like a quintessentially 21st-century issue. In fact such formal unions have a long and fascinating history. You can read the full story here.

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If we conceive of marriage as the long-term, exclusive cohabitation and sexual union of two people, then, in the Christian west at least, few male couples would qualify before the dawn of the 20th century. In fact, for the last 400 years, the practice of same-sex marriage has been largely the preserve of women.

To begin with, this was a secretive and punishable matter. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, it was often not even possible for two women to live together independently: households were supposed to be headed by men. Yet we know of a few 16th-century cases of women who disguised themselves as men and lived in marriage with other women. After 1600, as the Dutch scholars Rudolf Dekker and Lotte van de Pol discovered, examples of such “female husbands” become much easier to find, especially in England, Germany and Holland.

In Amsterdam in 1641, the middle-aged widow Trijntje Barents fell in love with 27-year-old Hendrickje Lamberts. Some time into their affair, Hendrickje began to dress as a man. This improved their sex life, Barents later confessed – from then on, the younger woman “sometimes had carnal knowledge of her two or three times a night, just as her late husband had – yes, and sometimes more arduous than he”. They were a settled couple, who wished they could legally marry. Other Dutch couples did just that. In the 1680s, Cornelia Gerritse van Breugel disguised herself as a man in order to wed her long-time lover, Elisabeth Boleyn, in an Amsterdam church. They were only found out years later, when Cornelia tired of wearing men’s clothes.

Such cases were even more common in 18th-century England. In the early 1730s, when both were in their late teens, Mary East and her girlfriend decided to move to London and make a life together as husband and wife. Mary put on male clothes and turned herself into “James How”. The two of them became successful publicans and pillars of their East End community. Everyone presumed they were married. Over the years, James was elected to almost every parish office: s/he served as the foreman of juries, on the night watch, as overseer of the poor. For more than three decades, they kept their secret, and lived as a married couple.

The Secret History of Same-Sex Marriage by Faramerz Dabhoiwala


Mac Barnett: Why a good book is a secret door

“My job is that I lie to children. But they’re honest lies. I write children’s books.”

– Mac Barnett

The delightful and funny Mac Barnett (I have to look up his books ASAP) discusses the relationship between fiction and the real world. Among other things, he talks about:

  • Telling stories to 4-year-olds about how he spied for the Queen of England on weekends
  • How to construct elaborate melon-based lies for children to discover
  • Pet blue whales and the kids who own them
  • Strange fascinating shops that hide the doorway to unexpected worlds. For example, a pirate supply store that sells everything a pirate would ever need; and the Echo Park Time Travel Mart with the motto “Whenever you are, we’re already then.”

All of which connects to the importance of wholly immersing ourselves in fiction in the best possible way. You just have to watch the video to grasp this utterly fantastic idea.

You can’t find the seams in the fiction. It’s like a little bit of fiction has colonised the real world.

– Mac Barnett

Top Ten Bookish Problems I Have

This is the second time I’m participating in Top Ten Tuesday, a weekly blog meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

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Now I don’t need to relearn the days of the week to realise that it is definitely not Tuesday. I thought this week’s theme sounded fun, but I had no time to write a post on the actual day the meme encouraged. Then I thought I’d post it on Thursday, which would still maintain the pleasant alliterative ring. But I sort of forgot, so here we are, writing a Top Ten Tuesday post on a Sunday. (I’m usually such a rule-follower that I felt I needed to offer a long explanation about this deliberate flouting of rules)

Without further ado, the top ten book-related problems I have are:

1) I’m incapable of having any sort of serious, focused conversation in a bookstore. Or a library. Or even a cafe with a decent bookshelf. I just tend to nod and mutter vaguely and make a sudden grab for any interesting-looking book I spot, completely alarming the person who thought I was listening to them.  A concentration of books renders me hopelessly distracted, instantly transforming me into a terrible conversational companion.

2) When I travel to a new place (or even an old one, really), I research the bookstores I can visit, and drop by all of them. While I love doing this and don’t intend to stop, this habit is fraught with dangers for my wallet and backpack-carrying shoulders. Every time I enter a bookstore on a vacation, I feel like I can’t leave it empty-handed. What better souvenir than a book, right?

3) I actually love lending books to people. I always want to thrust my favourites (or books I think they’ll like) in their hands and demand they enjoy it as much as I did. But I feel terribly awkward asking for the books to be returned. So now I’m constantly caught between the desire to pass my books around and the paranoia of ever letting them out of my sight. Maybe I should channel my inner librarian and make a list of the books I’ve lent, the people they’re with, and the approximate date  I should expect them back.

4) I want to read EVERYTHING. While I know this is technically impossible, it doesn’t stop me from trying. Thanks to which I get immensely stressed out by the amount of things I have yet to read and the ones I’m never going to be able to.

5) Thanks to my inability to comprehend the simple fact that it is impossible to read everything, I read voraciously in order to finish everything I can. But sometimes I start to feel that I’m reading too much, too fast. This habit coupled with my notoriously poor memory means that I don’t know how much I’ve actually retained from all that I’ve read.

6) Since I’m known as a reader among friends, people always ask me for recommendations or for a list of my favourites. I love matching books with people, but thanks to my aforementioned terrible memory, I can only remember a minuscule list of authors and books I want to talk about, even though I’ve loved many more. Fortunately, Goodreads comes to my rescue. I never kept a track of my books and reading habits before that, so I have no idea how I managed.

7) Mealtimes at home are always accompanied by a book in hand. This means that food crumbs and stains always make their way to the pages, no matter how much I try to save the book. I’ve learned that I’m a messy eater and that I’m not allowed to bring borrowed books anywhere near food.

8) In recent weeks, I’ve begun feeling uncomfortable about my ignorance and (previous) lack of interest in the Indian book scene. I’m caught up on the American book culture thanks to all the newsletters I’ve subscribed to, but my mind’s a complete blank when it comes to books coming out of India. I’m trying my best to remedy this and seek information, but the absence of access to an organised Indian book scene makes it incredibly frustrating.

9) I love my self-proclaimed bookworm cred and would love to wear it (literally wear it) with pride. But hunt as I might, it’s difficult to get bookish merchandise like tees, tote bags and mugs celebrating books and reading in India. Of course, I can order from websites based outside the country, but they’re expensive and I’m poor.

10) Because I’m largely steeped in fictional worlds, their characters have given me unrealistic expectations about interactions and relationships with real people. Does that ever go away?