By John MacBeath Watkins
I like reading old books. For one thing, the bad ones have been forgotten, so through the winnowing of time, the average book written a hundred or more years ago and still remembered is better than the average book published today. Sometimes a book has to wait for its time; Moby Dick initially received a cool reception when it was published in 1851, but its theme of obsession, scenes of violence and kaleidoscopic style made more sense to audiences after WW I. The book had its fans before that, which is why it kept getting reprinted, but few recognized it as a masterpiece until then.
I do wonder about the future of the book. I don't think the book is necessarily an artifact of its medium; after all, the Iliad and the Odyssey are both about the length of a novel, though they were originally epic poems in an oral tradition. To some extent, I expect the internet to originate its own forms, but some ways of telling a story are too appealing to die out. A story we can get lost in for about 100,000 words or so seems to be one of them.
It seems to me that the books that last have to function on the level of myth. The currently popular book that will most obviously be read 100 years from now is Lord of the Rings. While the writers who most wanted to be recognized as great were playing with modernism and social realism, Tolkien was writing an epic. Like Moby Dick, it was a book not dictated by the fashion of its time.
I suspect Kurt Vonnegut will stand the test of time better than Norman Mailer or John Updike. It is easy for critics to undervalue humor, and his was Swiftian, illuminating the absurdity of things we've taken seriously.
Catch-22, like Slaughterhouse 5, displays a feel for the absurdity of what has come to be regarded as the sacred war of the 20th century, the only one we can look back at with some certainty that it was right and justified. No doubt some earnest books about that war will also be read a century from now, but Heller and Vonnegut found ways to view it that seem to speak about all wars, so theirs are less bound by time.
Now, we can't know how our culture will change as time passes, or what overlooked masterpieces will reach prominence in the future. But what is being read now that will still be read a hundred years from now? Books created for the moment don't stand much of a chance, so I don't think The Audacity of Hope has much of a hope. Dreams from My Father stands a better chance, but its status will have much to do with Barak Obama being our first non-white president. However history judges the man, the story of him struggling with his identity will be important to historians. Had he not at least won the Democratic nomination, I doubt this would be on the hundred year reading list, though it would be just as good a book.
Often, a book matters in part because of what the author has been through, even if it isn't autobiographical. Had Samuel Clemons (Mark Twain) not grown up with slavery, could he have written The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with such power and humanity? Slavery was about treating people as objects, and the book is about humanizing the slave Jim. No matter how much historical research an author does, it seems it would be a poor substitute for actually knowing slaves and slave owners. Huck knows that he will go to Hell for helping Jim escape, with the kind of certainty that comes from growing up knowing something rather than having to be convinced. In the world of Huck Finn, the problem is not the evil slaveholder, it's the good people who obey the laws that established slavery, because that's what it means in their world to be good people. Huckleberry Finn's greatness is his willingness to help his friend, Jim, even though it will send him to Hell.
It is a world someone who hadn't grown up with the peculiar institution could not have portrayed with such depth.
But Clemons was well known in his day. Herman Melville was reasonably successful, but not considered a great writer, nor was Jane Austen. Who, in the early 1800s, could have guessed she would be more avidly read in the 21st century than in her own lifetime?
And who are the Melvilles and Austens of a century from now? It's a game for quiet afternoons, useful for forgetting the fashions of the moment.