The Case For Preferring Older Books

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2019-04-04 17:00:00-04:00 No comments

This most likely sounds like get-off-my-lawn-ism, but bear with me, as I try to distract all of you temporarily from the flames leaping from our collective rooftops.

Reading Kenneth Rexroth, by way of his critical works, reminded me why I don't tend to pick something up just because it has an award or critical acclaim to its name. It's because such things have almost nothing to do with a work's actual quality, and everything to do with the social circles the work has traveled in.

I give no more credence to the Man Booker Prize or even the Pulitzer than I do the Oscars, because in the end they are constructed the same way. They are aggregates of tastemaking that are more about people in a given circle providing each other with props and backpats than about any actual attempt to draw attention to works that try to accomplish something singular. The Man Booker Prize and the Pulitzer just happen to be slightly more pretentious versions of the Oscars, that's all.

I don't mean to imply that all Oscar-winners, or all Pulitzer-, Hugo-/Nebula-, or Man Booker-winners are trash. Archive Of Our Own's recent Hugo nod, for instance, is a sign that attitudes about what's important in the field, what's worthy of recognition, etc. are shifting. That's a good thing. I just don't think the fact that something has won an award, or a nomination for same, is a vindication of its significance; it's one of a slew of such clues, and perhaps not even one of the more important ones.

Another reason I tend not to bother with recent award-winners is because they're, well, recent. It's nigh-impossible to say what kind of actual value something has when it's barely spent a year in the cultural consciousness anyway, with a correspondingly small feedback loop associated with it. Most of the books that get singled out in a given year aren't going to be worth talking about by next year, because the whole system of rewards we have for what we think of as "good books" or "literary work" are inevitably geared towards short-term payoffs: a big burst of sales to cover the cost, and offset the razor-thin margins, of publishing.

Most of why I get interested in something is because a) I bump into it on my own recognizance, or b) someone else who has highly specific and well-articulated tastes, like Rexroth, is able to convince me that it's worth the trouble. I trust very few critics today to tell me what books published now are going to have lasting value, simply because they themselves are not going to have any idea. The only way to tell if something has lasting value is to look at what's actually lasted. So if those folks peer back into time and see something that's weathered well and make a fiery case for it, I will be far more interested than when they bang drumheads for the latest hot thing.

As I was preparing this piece, a nice bit of serendipity manifested itself. Nautilus ran an excellent interview with Cesar Hidalgo of the MIT Media Lab, about the way collective memory is a fluid thing. One of the points Hidalgo made seems central to my own:

I read a very good book recently called The Formula by Albert-Laszlo Barabas. He says you can equate quality and popularity in situations in which performance is clearly measurable. But in cases in which performance is not clearly measurable, you cannot equate popularity with quality. If you look at tennis players, you find tennis players who win tournaments and difficult games are more popular. So quality and fame are closely correlated in a field in which performance is measured as tightly as professional tennis players. As you move to things that are less quantifiable in terms of performance, like modern art, your networks are going to be more important in determining popularity.

(Note to self: find that book.)

This insight, more than almost any other I've come across, distills for me the essence of the problem. Awards and accolades are reflections of measurements of performance — First, Second, No Good, as John Cage put it — but a work of literature isn't that kind of performance. It can't be ranked in any absolute way. Its appeal is more one-to-one, person-to-person, heart-to-heart. Making a case for one book is not automatically about making a case against any other book, save maybe in the sense that there are only twenty-four hours in a day and only one of me, and to me some things are going to seem more worth reading than others in the span of my short life.

With all that's out there, time and taste are the best filters towards using one's reading opportunities wisely. There is more to encounter than ever — to read, to play, to listen to, to watch — and the lower the threshold there is for creator access and archival preservation, the harder it is in general to sift wheat from cat hair. We need all the help we can get.

Side note. One of the points made by the interviewer is that "one of the common criticisms of the current information glut is we have no shared cultural center" — i.e., no more Elvis, no more Beatles. Hidalgo thinks it's because "nowadays the guys in the middle of the culture are different guys," but I think there's a different dynamic at play. When Elvis died, Lester Bangs walked around his neighborhood and straw-polled folks about it. I, and Lester alike, found it telling that the Latinx folks sitting on their stoops couldn't have cared less. For them, Elvis wasn't the center of anything. I have to wonder how much of our notion of a "shared culture center" has been the product of the same kind of white-boy myopia. That and there's the conflation of awareness with significance. A ton of people saw Star Wars back in '77, but that doesn't mean all of them cared about it. (See also Avatar, at the same time one of the most commercially successful and least culturally relevant films ever.)

One other last side note. I want to carve out a key exception to the older-is-better rule: nonfiction. Newer scholarship and research, and certainly higher standards for same, make for more insightful reading. This goes double for nonfiction about fast-moving scientific fields, which can stale faster than an open package of Fig Newtons left in the car. That said, who wants to make a case for tossing over Carl Sandburg's biography of Lincoln, which is as much art as it is history? And many discussions about science (The Open Society And Its Enemies) continue to make for welcome and urgent reading.

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