Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Winnow

It's nice when one of your secretly held suppositions gets seconded by an external source -- particularly when that source happens to be acclaimed in his field. In last week's review of Grifter's Game, I knocked chronological snobbery, the idea that certain things are worse (or better) because they happen to be old. Such thinking blurs distinctions, keeps up from evaluating an argument or idea or text based on its own merits. If you've read at all beyond your own lifespan, though, you may feel a bit uncomfortable with such time blindness. Sure, we should be fair in our judgments, but why do older books so often seem better than the current crop?

Cormac McCarthy, author of The Road, offers an elegant explanation during
a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal:

If you look at the Greek plays, they're really good. And there's just a handful of them. Well, how good would they be if there were 2,500 of them? But that's the future looking back at us. Anything you can think of, there's going to be millions of them. Just the sheer number of things will devalue them. I don't care whether it's art, literature, poetry or drama, whatever. The sheer volume of it will wash it out. I mean, if you had thousands of Greek plays to read, would they be that good? I don't think so.
The key phrase is "that's just the future looking back at us." Perhaps ancient Greece produced thousands of dramas, but the winnowing fan of history has shaken off the chaff. Tastes change, styles come and go, and time has a way of sifting through the silt to get to the gold. Hence the reason why it's difficult to pluck gems off of the Barnes & Noble "new releases" stacks. None of it has been sorted, so to speak. Not that such a process is infallible. I remember a Lit professor deriding Moby Dick as "interminable," and the poetry of Wallace Stevens makes me want to gouge my eyes out with my thumbs. But it's a reason why we ought to add older titles to our reading lists. We don't consider them (or exclude them from frank evaluation) merely because they're old. We consider them because they've survived.

(Picture: CC 2006 by
Matthew L Stevens)

4 comments:

thebluestockingsociety said...

We don't consider them (or exclude them from frank evaluation) merely because they're old. We consider them because they've survived.

I heartily concur. My thought is that "it must be a classic for a reason." More modern literature is harder, though not impossible, to sift through on my own.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I think C.S. Lewis once said much the same thing.

However, it is unfortunate that this trend isn't universal. If you've ever had to wade through Aristotle's dense and mind-numbing prose, you'll be happy to know he was a great orator capable of fascinating his audiences--but only his dull lecture-notes survive.

Loren Eaton said...

Jessica,

The problem I find with current-generation books is that there are so darn many of them! Not that I dislike pulp. I'm a fan. But (to use an eating metaphor) classics and older titles help us keep a balanced diet.

Loren Eaton said...

CR,

I think Lewis' quote was that we should read older books because perspectives outside of our own culture (and time period) help sharpen our thinking. Which is also true.

Have read some Aristotle. Did not like it much to my eternal shame. Given my choice, I'd rather have Plato's Phaedrus.