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)