Wednesday, October 16, 2013

What gives a book longevity?

Matt Kahn has been doing a blogging project where he reads the top-selling novel of the year for the past 100 years. He's now up to 1951's From Here to Eternity, and it was one of the few bestsellers that he has found, so far, to hold up over time.

That so many of the books on Kahn's list have been forgotten helps to dispel the myth that people used to read Real Literature in the past, and now they read schlock. I think the books that survive from earlier generations tend to be the classics, and so we are left with this skewed view that in days gone by, everyone sat around reading the classics all the time.

Anyhoo ... I've been reading Kahn's summaries and trying to identify what gives a book that timeless quality, and what makes it forgettable. One thing I noticed pretty quickly is that having a book made into a movie helps greatly with that book's ability to linger in the public consciousness. Kahn has found several books that were made into movies and faded anyway. But there don't seem to be too many books that lasted only because of their book form.

Since that part is out of most writers' immediate control, however, what is it about a book itself that lasts--or doesn't? One thing that seems to destine a book for ultimate obscurity is appealing to the sentiments (or sentimentality) of its times, but not keying in to universal and substantial truths or emotions. A temporary thrill--or warmth--but not enough illumination. I'm also starting to wonder if I see a pattern forming where books that reinforce status quo attitudes tend to be very popular in their time and then forgotten, while those that challenge the status quo live on longer.

In praising From Here to Eternity, Kahn comments, "The novel deals honestly and directly with morally ambiguous situations, and with topics like sex and honor" and "with complex relationships, both romantic and professional, and with complex group dynamics." Two features jump out at me there: complexity and ambiguity.

I don't have any definite answers. Just food for thought.

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