Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Why you can't find what you want at the library, PART 1

'The Library of Grand Vizier Ragib Pasha' 
engraving in Tableau général 
de l.empire othoman
by Ignatius Mouradgea d.Ohsson
Paris late 1700s
I was at my favorite branch library last week. My inaugural post, my very first post of this blog, was about the Battery Park branch library of the NYPL system.

I gushed about how the literature section was full of not just classics but modern classics, and even newer books, on their way to becoming modern classics, pre-classic I guess.


It’s not enough just to know only Dickens and Conrad and Boccacio, "the Canon," the books agreed on as being the greatest literature, then taught in colleges.

Hamish ed, UK 1951
Between 1961 and 1982, The Catcher in the Rye was the most censored book in high schools and libraries in the United States.

Everyone reads them, and then everyone writes about them- think of the tens of thousands of dissertations dissecting the greatest to the smallest of the Canon.

I'm not saying there is something wrong with continuing to mine the classics. I agree, in great works of art, the wealth of things to discover is bottomless. Things the authors put there on purpose and—more often—things they didn’t know they’d put there, just following their instincts.

more interesting than the original? 
And I agree that every new reader brings all their own stuff into the trigonometry of allegory. 

I myself can endlessly hold forth on what a story means, or a book, or the movie they made from the book and how it failed (or didn’t). And enjoy myself thoroughly.

It's just that. . .
. . . Is that all there is? Surely great books have been written in the meantime! How it surprises me to see highschoolers on the subway still reading Catcher in the Rye for English class. 

That was written in 1951, and whereas it was a revolution in its day, and defined a new generation, well that's all old hat by now. It has passed into a form of history.

Agreed, it takes a very great writer to feel the pulse of the age coming before anyone else does. That's the whole point of revolution- to uproot, to then pass into status quo. The Canon is full of such books, that also defined a generation, and were also a revolution, spent by now.

These books are still in the Canon because they are great works and still wonderful to read. Catcher in the Rye is great fun to read too. I don't mean that we shouldn't read these things. We should, in fact: agreed.

Just. . . I am also in the mood to find out what's been going on around me. What is the state of literature today, of my contemporaries.

over-indulging myself
I have a bad tendency toward nihilism sometimes. When I begin to hold forth on books, I get a little nagging feeling, of: Why am I sitting here talking about this? Of all the things in the world to talk about? Why am I sitting here doing this? Of all the things in the world to do?

I love to lose myself in a literary discussion-- but that's exactly what it feels like: losing myself. I feel I am over-indulging myself.


And it feels especially self-indulgent to go over the same books, rereading them, parsing them again. It's playing it safe. We've been told these books are great. I'm afraid to gamble on a new book- I don't have to try to figure out for myself if it's a good book or not.

Sienna Miller as Miss Julie-- after.
Broadway 2010
photo Sara Krulwich/NYT
Funny, this reminds me of Broadway! In these economic times, no one is willing to take a risk on a play that people might not like. Nobody is willing to risk producing an original Broadway play. It's safer to do revivals- New! Barefoot in the Park! Three Sisters! or modern remakes: After Miss Julie! And the safest bet of all- With movie stars!

As I said, what I like about the Battery Park branch is they have books by writers who are not widely known, except to the small group of people who keep up to the minute.

"Flowchart" for the modern writer
cartoonist/writer Austin Kleon's website

Writers who are Iowa Writers Workshop grads, or winners of this and that award, Whitbread or Whitebread or whatever- the point is, a prize; all within the last 20 years- all names that I have never heard of, but who I’m sure we will all eventually come to know.

shiny new manga edition
I will still reread my Great Expectations and my Moby Dick. Regularly. But I also want to discover something new.

I suppose I’m also falling victim to the “shiny new” fallacy- don't even bother with the old. We don't have to read it to "know" it! Somebody else read it for us. On to the new whim.

awe of a child
It's exciting to walk into a library, it gives me that thrill I felt as a child discovering reading. As a child I didn't know what was good, what was bad. I was on my own. It was always a risk, an adventure. That's the thrill I get at the Battery Park branch.

Continued, Part 2-
See previous post:
July 27, 2010
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