Sunday morning: dawn.
An article in the UK Guardian concerning the tawdry descent of the Nobel Prize ( https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jul/17/the-ugly-scandal-that-cancelled-the-nobel-prize-in-literature ) only makes me think of the corresponding degeneration of American letters. Certainly the Pulitzer is no longer a prize of more than promotional worth—but given the proliferation of subcategories to meet every demand, and the corresponding lack of sales, even that lesser god has failed. The American Book Award has long been a vehicle of political assuagement rather than artistic merit and an economically impotent statement of virtue signaling at that, having little to do with America or American readers beyond the shadow of the academic pale. And the decline of British literary awards, a riot of special interests, is on par now with a Simon Cowell talent show—no longer a presentation of Brit talent but a smorgasbord of international fire-eaters, dog acts, and precocious children. It has been many generations since the French chose to enter into this sort of contest, and thus their literature is read these days only in paperback while sipping bad coffee and sitting on wire chairs, watching the congestion of traffic and breathing the fumes for flavor. And sadly, the Germans have not regained their soul since Thomas Mann stopped climbing mountains. I would love to know what the Polish and Russians are up to since the fall of the Soviets, but they apparently can’t find English translators, unless of course they hate Americans and/or all Western values after spending some time at an American University.
Which brings me to the part about the loss of Western values. . . .
I crave good books. The need for them is life or death with me—has been my life and very likely will be the death of me. I can live on a bowl of cereal and coffee in the morning, yogurt for lunch and a hamburger for dinner if I have a steady diet of words to accompany them. Sadly, and too frequently, I have to re-read old favorites these days to find nourishment and though that can be fine by itself, it is not as inspiring as the discovery of something wonderful and new. No! worse than that! It leads to a circling of thought that has me biting my own tale. It takes the fun out of growing old. It shortens the distance to the future.
I recently began rereading Moby Dick again and got myself thoroughly depressed in the process. I often turn to the odd essays on my favorite websites for escape from that sort of thing but there was nothing at hand that I hadn’t already browsed in the previous week or month or quarter. I felt like a cow trapped in a field with goats. Or, as I image such a thing—the grass there being already too damned short!
One benefit of being a bookseller is the ready access it affords to actual books. But I only stock about 20,000 volumes and can no longer buy willy nilly as we once did, so many times I’ll buy a book I haven’t read just because it has the name of one of those afore mentioned awards emblazoned across a doubtful cover. (The cover is commonly a stolen image of great Western art of the past, as if the written work begs for the reflected glory.) I must have fifty or sixty of those volumes on the shelf right now, all of them in the same used condition that I bought them in because I could not manage to keep the words down without gagging. To settle my stomach on such occasions I usually read poetry. A little Dylan Thomas tells me to keep up the good fight. Emily Dickinson reminds me to appreciate the moment. Some Robert Frost quiets my soul. Yeats will get me to writing again.
A favorite recourse these days, when I’m at odds with other printed matters, is the past, as recounted by one of the better historians we are blessed with: a Victor Davis Hanson, David Hackett Fischer, or David McCullough for instance. Biography is a good resort for this as well, being history by other means. It seems I’m always reading Boswell, but then there is so much Boswell to read. The man was indefatigable. And then there is always the personal essay—E. B. White, H. L. Mencken, or H. D. Thoreau. However, the past will frequently make me want for a better present and then I am back to thoughts of writing my own novels again and that is not my purpose. I want relief from my thoughts and to be in the mind of another, if only for the moment. But history can be nasty, brutish, and however long, as we learn sooner or later, even nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.
The abandonment of literature in our age, which is truly a desertion of the present and betrayal of the future, has already gone beyond crisis. With the death of the great independent publishing houses, all of them swallowed whole now by the international amalgamations and being run down by corporate bean counters and the acolytes of various true beliefs, literature has devolved to the lowest common denominator not divisible by 2—odd numbers only, and stay in the queue please. Beach reads need only touch on some current disturbance in the force before the characters jump into bed, or whatever will hold their body weight. The issues of the day portrayed there are most often extensions of the six o’clock news but seldom grapple with more than a zipper. The proliferation of serial killers in mystery novels is grounded in a depth of thought that assumes it’s the body count that counts, not the life that was lost. Moral dilemmas typically revolve around issues long since resolved when adults roamed the earth, even if not to the satisfaction of the current political zeitgeist of youth, and in any case, they are often little more than an open theatre of the absurd looking for clicks. And back to the numbers again.
No, the real cowardice of our time is the refuge so many of us have found in politics rather than philosophy. No need to think. You know the drill. Reaction is all that’s called for. We can all scream for our ice cream. Louder and they will hear you! The art of conversation, as it is sometimes referred to, is lost. Conversation requires listening and respect. Not coincidently, the same things necessary for reading anything more than a tweet, a headline, a blurb, or a bit of graffiti, or yelling an epithet.
The internet would seem a boon to readers like me, and it is, at least to some degree. I can easily order titles I want to read—or want to try to read. But choosing what to take a chance on is actually more difficult in a digital as apposed to a hands-on world where everyone is a critic but few reviewers have earned respect through good service and commitment to shared values. Grasping the object itself and opening the pages of a single book amidst the quiet of an aisle of books is irreducible. Sites such as Goodreads are insipid and generally insufferable—political correctness abounding. I have ready links to about forty different literary websites, and on an average day I can scan ten or more of them in the hour before I start work and find nothing for my time (but an empty feeling in my gut, despite the bowl of cereal).
Interestingly, the best of these islands in the stream, such as Reading the Past ( https://readingthepast.blogspot.com/ ), Socrates in the City ( https://socratesinthecity.com/ ), or Collected Miscellany ( http://collectedmiscellany.com/ ) are conducted by individuals who are passionate about their chosen subjects and have very specific tastes. As I become familiar with them, I can pick out the better prospects pretty fast. Still, sometimes, no gems catch the morning light. Whatever their quirks, those individual reader/reviewers care about books much as I do and I am many times caught by their own enthusiasms. That’s a good thing. Real enthusiasm in our world is hard to find. But they are not me. Their taste is not often mine. Their interests only occasionally overlap my own. And if you are a slow reader, as I am, disappointments far outnumber the great finds.
Actually, what I am wishing for this morning, as I avoid other tasks, is a literary award conducted by the likes of them—the readers whose lives so depend on the joy they find in books. The type of human being who will print articles they find on the internet in order to avoid reading on a screen. The sort who are always in need of more shelf space but never seem to find the time for triage. The sort who will recall the pleasure of a good book by merely catching a glimpse of the spine on someone else’s shelf and think better of the person for it—or the reverse. . . . But, I wonder, how that would work?