Friday, August 21, 2009

I Can Stare For a Thousand Years

By Kevin Guilfoile

I have a pair of sick kids and an 18-year-old cat who is demonstrating the onset of feline insanity by standing at the foot of my bed and screaming at the top of her lungs for four straight hours beginning every morning at 3 AM. It's true cats can sound just like distressed babies when they want to, the crafty, tiger-striped, whiskery bastards.

So I'm sleep-deprived, is my point, and that's my excuse for repurposing one of my Infinite Summer posts for a second time this month.

This week I wondered if Infinite Jest, a book I am growing to love, a novel I am beginning to think belongs on the rarified important shelf, is nevertheless a book people will still be reading in a hundred years. This is an old writerly concern, of course. A book seems so sturdy, so permanent, but precious few novels outlive their authors. Indeed looking back at the publishing year 1909, I can't find a single novel that I would expect any of you to have read with the possible exception of L. Frank Baum's The Road to Oz. Even reliably prolific authors of the time had an off-year in aught-nine. I was a devourer of H.G. Wells when I was young and yet I have never cracked, nor even heard of, nor even can pronounce with a straight face, Tono-Bungay. So much for the three weeks H.G. spent writing that one.

(The Phantom of the Opera was published in 1910 but began serialization in Le Gaulois 100 years ago next month. An oatmeal-raisin cookie to the non-French person who can name the author of that famous story without looking it up.)

So my predictable question to you is what authors (and specifically works) from say 1970 to the present, do you think future generations will still be reading? This isn't an invitation for you to just name your favorite book, of course. I'm asking what books have the stuff to endure, to remain entertaining and relevant to a generation that has levitating magnet shoes and grows genetically modified broccoli with the cheese already on it.

The proprietors of this blog in 2109 will reward the descendants of readers with the most accurate replies with first edition neuronovels by Helo Chercover and Numbersix Sakey plugged directly into their basal ganglia and imprinted with the author's DNA...

Jeepus Crow, I'm tired. "Basal ganglia" probably won't sound so funny after a nap.

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Dana King said...

Not to worry. "Basal ganglia" is one of terms that's funny whenever you use it.

Steerpike said...

Gaston Leroux!

Cough up my cookie, Kevin. :)

Corey Wilde said...

I think James Lee Burke's books will be still be read and studied.

Libby Hellmann said...

Um.. I think some of Sara's books will be read. :)

Sara Paretsky said...

Libby--thanks--now I'm embarrassed, but I'll post, anyway. I was thinking along these lines this week, because my granddaughter's sophomore hs class was told to read One flew over the cuckoo's nest, and I said I'd re-read it so she could bounce some of her reactions off me. When I read the book years ago I thought it was incredibly profound. Now I think it's wooden, tiresome and predictable. I don't know if that's a difference in my age, or the book's age.

Anna Katherine Green's mysteries were international best sellers 120 years ago, but no one knows them today. Do Holmes, Chandler and Hammett survive because of movies/tv, or because they're better written?
I imagine Infinite Jest will survive like Finnegan's Wake--pored over by scholars and a small band of devotees , but not widely read by the public--assuming anyone outside of scholarly circles is still reading 100 years hence.

Sara Paretsky said...

ps kevin, i'm sorry about your cat, but I hope the kids are on the mend

Sara Paretsky said...

There's a beautiful, thought-provoking commentary on reading in today's NY Times, a tribute to the late Richard Poirier, whose work I confess I didn't know--but am now eager to read. Poirier wrote about reading in slow motion--like the slow food movement--a step aside from our hyperlinking era.

I've pasted much of the essay below:
A Man of Good Reading

The literary scholar Richard Poirier, who died last weekend at the age of 83, was one of the strong critics of his time.
For five decades, Mr. Poirier taught literature at Rutgers University, where he founded Raritan, a quarterly named for the river that borders New Brunswick. He reached a broader public by collaborating with another man of letters, Edmund Wilson, to create the Library of America

Mr. Poirier’s most important contribution came in his criticism, which tried to convey why the act of reading is — and should be — so difficult. The most powerful works of literature, he insisted, offer “a fairly direct access to pleasure” but become “on longer acquaintance, rather strange and imponderable.” Even as readers try to pin down what a writer means, the best authors try to elude them, using all the resources of sound, rhythm and syntax to defeat any straightforward account of what they are doing.

This approach to literature is as resonant today as ever. Mr. Poirier’s criticism poses a challenge to literary professionals who bemoan that Americans are spending less time with the established classics as well as to Internet enthusiasts who boast that the Web will provide immediate access not only to the best that has been thought and said but to everything else. he suggests that linking and hyperlinking are no substitute for a sustained encounter with the great writers of the past, who were themselves both tormented and thrilled by “what words were doing to them and what they might do in return.”

As an English professor, too, Mr. Poirier was often at odds with his colleagues, whom he mockingly compared to bureaucrats: “Criticism in the spirit of the F.D.A. is intended to reduce your consumption of certain of the golden oldies, to reveal consumer fraud in books that for these many years have had a reputation for supplying hard-to-get nutrients.” In the “canon wars” that raged on campuses and beyond in the 1980s —with multiculturalists feuding with traditionalists — Mr. Poirier faulted both sides.
For Mr. Poirier the act of writing — in particular the tradition of American writing that ran from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Wallace Stevens — was an assertion of individual power.

An advocate of “reading in slow motion,” Mr. Brower asked, simply: “What is it like to read this?”

Mr. Poirier took this question seriously. In painstakingly close readings, he showed that poets like Robert Frost and Stevens and a novelist like Norman Mailer seek to trumpet their individual voice, but when they do so, they find that they are using words that are not truly their own or that they are imprisoned by previous self-definitions. “Struggling for his identity within the materials at hand,” they “show us, in the mere turning of a sentence this way or that, how to keep from being smothered by the inherited structuring of things,” Mr. Poirier wrote.

Mr. Poirier cherished self-contradiction. He helped enshrine the nation’s literary classics at the Library of America, but he also wrote that “works of art are not required to exist. There is nothing outside of them that requires their existence. If Shakespeare had never existed we would not miss his works, for there would be nothing missing.”

Literature was not sacred or even necessary. But it mattered enormously, because, at its most potent, it insisted that we not take ourselves, or our words, for granted. “We ought to be grateful to language,” Mr. Poirier wrote, “for making life messier than ever.”

Or, as Wallace Stevens put it in a poem Mr. Poirier quoted again and again, “Speech is not dirty silence/Clarified. It is silence made still dirtier.”

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Thanks for that Sara. That's terrific.

Fantôme de l'Opéra said...

Regarding the 100th anniversary of the serialization of Leroux's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, please spread the word about it! It's a big shame that the original novel is often overlooked in favour of its subsequent and more successful adaptations in the cinema and theatre.

Please show your support to the original novel and celebrate its 100th anniversary by joining a newly launched special Phantom Twitter Stream, created specially to commemorate the centenary.