Thursday, September 1, 2016

Literature's shelf life

Everything and everyone gets forgotten eventually, especially for writers and poets, who's livelihoods and legacies rely less on critics suddenly brandishing them as names we must remember (or rediscover in fits of revisionist apologetics) than on an audiences to sit for long periods and absorb words of description, abstraction, feeling, have a willingness to suspend disbelief long enough to take in nuanced tale of experience they are otherwise unfamiliar with. The period of suspension is getting shorter, I'm afraid, as surveys indicate that fewer than half of adults who read consume literary fiction for "pleasure". That frightfully reduces the potential audience for the Good Stuff to a handful of academics, students compelled to read assigned authors for a grade, and a smaller handful of dedicated booksellers and their shrinking coterie of customers still willing to read deeply and longingly.

The internet, of course, is the go-to villain when assigning blame , but history is a long string of disruptions when new technologies severely intervened in whatever elevated discourses were occurring and forced everyone to change the way they did things and to reassign their priorities. I do feel badly when books I have read and cherished and written and spoke so often for so long fall out of print, or when I encounter younger people who don't know the names of Cheever, Hemingway, Baldwin, Oates, Abe, Faulkner. Part of me thinks that's inexcusable, but then there is the sudden realization that time goes on , inevitably, and each generation gains their own heroes as those new heroes struggle with experiences that seem central to the current decade.

Might these young readers be as curious as I was to investigate older writers from generations prior to their own, as I tried to be when I enrolled in as many literature classes as I could? Memory is a tricky thing as one ages; back in the day I seemed to have been smarter, faster, more daring and curious than I actually was. I was a smug little boy blessed with enough vanity to read authors I wouldn't normally have merely in order to keep pace with what I thought was a competition with my peers. I didn't like not being part of the conversation that ensued. Years later, though, the weight of the experiences and adventures I consumed for vanity's sake takes effect, and I have now something nearing wisdom, or at least a practical realism about my expectations about anything and the flux and flow of the world that churns through populations and their arts and culture . One scratches their head and stares at their own library now that they're in their mid-sixties and , in the flush of memory, pray that such beautiful words find fate more fitting than a compost heap or a crowded, mildewed shelf in an Oregon attic.

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