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The Tyranny of the New 

Why the future of books might be old books

Thursday, Jun 17 2010

Click here for Nathan Ihara's list of perfectly aged summer reading.

Last month much ink was spilled (and pixels burnt) on Bill Clegg's Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man. It's a blow-by-blow memoir about his monthlong crack bender in 2005 that temporarily cost him his job as a prominent literary agent. The Guardian published an excerpt. So did New York Magazine. The New York Times ran a profile in which Clegg describes how the memoir "gushed out like a transcription" and sold shortly after for $350,000. All three had pictures of Clegg's sleekly handsome face. The book is stacked high and glossy on the "new nonfiction" table at Barnes & Noble, the jacket filled with blurb hyperbole from Irvine Welsh and Michael Cunningham: "Heart-wrenching ... Amazing ... An instant classic ... Forget comparisons. Read this book."

Unfortunately, the book is a by-the-numbers account of the oft-chronicled highs and lows of addiction, a litany of scores, rocks, empty bags, hotel rooms, broken crack pipes and promises. The characters are vague and absent, the insights meager, the psychology lifted from a rehab pamphlet. Clegg comes across as a Patrick Bateman type who has recently been taught to say he's sorry. It might be harrowing if it weren't all so boring. Despite Cunningham's plea to "forget comparisons," the book suffers by them. Even within the sordid micro-genre of addiction memoirs and novels, this book does not stand out. It lacks the vitality of Jim Carroll's 1978 Basketball Diaries, the cruelty of Hubert Selby Jr.'s 1978 Requiem for a Dream, or even the corny bravado of James Frey's 2003 A Million Little Pieces. Clegg's entire book cannot speak to the allure of intoxications as powerfully as a few lines of prologue from William Burrough's 1953 Junky: "My earliest memories are colored by a fear of nightmares . . . I recall hearing a maid talk about opium, and how opium brings sweet dreams, and I said, 'I will smoke opium when I grow up.'"

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY KYLE T. WEBSTER
  • ILLUSTRATION BY KYLE T. WEBSTER

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It's not astonishing that Clegg's memoir is mediocre. What's astonishing is the sheer amount of energy, time and money that has been spent to push it into our hands. Why this book? What does it have to recommend itself? Only this: It is New while all the other, better books are Old.

We are sold books the same way we are sold cell phones, as if the latest models deserve the most attention. Each year, publishing houses churn out hundreds of thousands of new titles, including 35,000 works of fiction. The publicity machine goes to work, eager to fashion the rare success. Magazines and newspapers — the ones that still have book sections — chime in with opinions on which new books are worthwhile and why. Newspapers print their "summer reading" lists. The big-box bookstores pile their display tables with glossy stacks of fresh arrivals — for a fee, naturally. A relentless progression of the latest, freshest, greatest. Read this book! But all the middlemen along the way — the publishers, publicists, critics and book sellers — know the truth: The book they are hyping probably is not the book you ought to read, not even the book you would most enjoy reading. That book lies hidden in the back of the bookstore, or perhaps not even there. It is 10-, 20-, 35-years-old. However good it is, no one talks about it anymore. You might not have heard its title or its author's name.

A good example is Ann Beattie's Chilly Scenes of Winter, a wry little novel about the longing, confusion and disappointment of youth. As Charles McGrath wrote recently in The New York Times, Chilly Scenes of Winter was once "a kind of bible among 20-somethings." But Beattie's book is unavailable in the same Barnes & Noble that prominently features Hilary Thayer Hamann's Anthropology of an American Girl. Both novels are about the ironies and cruelties of youth, both are set in the 1970s, but since Hamann's novel is recently written, it is being sold, while Beattie's is not. This is, perversely, the way of things for even the best books: a flurry of attention in the beginning followed by an inexorable march toward obscurity. Great titles pop back into the public consciousness again if there's a movie made or someone dies.

The book industry's latest-is-best attitude seems out-of-kilter with our literary aesthetics. In 1939 Ezra Pound wrote that "literature is news that STAYS new." To this day, it's as good a definition as we have. It seems self-evident that a great book from 1973 is preferable to a so-so book from 2010. It seems obvious that an author's best book should be bought before his latest. (For example, Ian McEwan's first novel, the wicked, brilliant and little-known The Cement Garden deserves as much attention as his grandiose new satire Solar.) Novels of value should not be judged by their publication date. We should not read novels as historical artifacts or purely as commentary on our socio-political moment. Truly great fiction somehow manages to remain forever radical.

So who's to blame for the imbalance between the book industry's practices and the aesthetic reality? It's easy to point the finger at the major publishing houses whose reliance on large offset print runs pushes them to publicize each new arrival as an "instant classic" and to urge readers to "forget comparisons." Newspapers are also to blame. By demanding timeliness from their book reviews, they lock literary discussion to the present. (Indeed, McGrath only had the opportunity to write about Beattie's Chilly Scenes of Winter in the Times because she has a new novella, Walks With Men, coming out.) And, finally, readers themselves are culpable. We want our authors young and beautiful, our novels hip and topical. We are suckers for the concept of progress, eager to believe that today's novel, against all logic, is superior to yesterday's. Perhaps the system is not even broken, perhaps we are getting exactly what we want, or at least what we deserve.

Still, it's satisfying to imagine a literary utopia where new technologies and new attitudes would prevent great books from falling by the wayside, would never privilege the new solely for its newness. To some extent that utopia already exists: The Internet has made it so that old reviews and rare titles are now easily available at the click of a button; Amazon's preference algorithms bypass the single-mindedness of the display table to unearth literary treasures suited to your taste ("You may be interested to know that Knut Hamsen's Growth of the Soil Vol. 2 is available."); the lively world of web litblogs, free from the pressures of journalism, promote books from all time periods (for example, the online literary magazine thesecondpass.com offers spirited reviews of older works) and neglectedbooks.com contains essential gleanings from our literary amnesia; and the rise of eReaders and the iPad eliminate printing costs, making it possible for publishers to sell easily across their backlist.

The potential for the iPad to contemporize and repackage novels is endlessly exciting. Novels could get the full "Criterion Collection" experience and come with a wealth of supplementary information: a comprehensive history of a novel's covers, links to online book communities, reviews, biographies, photgraphs, authors interview, short stories, etc. Zeitgeist would come included.

The essential realization is that there are many ways to inject books with a quality of "newness." Since 1999 The New York Review of Books has been rescuing obscure authors and republishing their works as exciting new discoveries. Lost novels, like Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Française and Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone, have become critical and commercial hits. New translations by the likes of Edith Grossman (Don Quixote), Lydia Davis (Swann's Way) or Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (War and Peace), cause spikes in sales and coverage. Penguin's clever Graphic Classic series provides jacket design makeovers to an intriguing mix of old titles, including not only obvious choices like Moby Dick but also Don DeLillo's White Noise and Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle. (Canonized classics tend to have healthy commercial lives, surviving in high schools and academia; it is the work of the last 10 to 60 years, the literary middle-ground, that is most endangered.) Roberto Bolaño's Savage Detectives and 2666 became recent literary sensations, not because they were new, but because they were new to us.

In truth, there would be nothing wrong with the overemphasis on new books except for a simple fact. We cannot read them all. Life is short and literature is long. It takes, on average, 15 hours to read a novel, which means it would take 59 years with no sleep to read only the ones published last year. We are drowning in an abundance of riches. We need help finding our way to the book lover's Holy Grail, the novel that forever alters our perception of the world. To this end, instead of being told what to look forward to, we should be reminded of what we already have.

  • Why the future of books might be old books

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