Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Laureates of yesteryear

I'm reading, and enjoying, Phyllis Rose's The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading. I may discuss it more later, but for now I want to mention a mental tangent I went off on when she mentioned "Sigrid Undset, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist whose work my mother's generation of women revered, who is now largely unknown." And I thought: It's true. I've heard the name before, but couldn't name anything Undset has written, let alone describe her work. And this made me look up the Nobel laureates in literature, out of curiosity as to how many I would know. I've read at least one poem or story from 15 of the 107.* Which was rather more than I'd expected, since I've become aware that although I read a lot, my reading tends not to be canonical.

I'm glad to see Sinclair Lewis there, although I fail to understand the enduring appeal Arrowsmith seems to have for others (which I rank far below his Main Street and Babbitt, and even Free Air). But I wonder: how many people besides me are still reading Lewis? Or Pearl Buck? John Steinbeck was a darling of the American educational system through which I passed a few decades ago; probably more of his novels appeared in our class assignments than the work of any other author but Shakespeare. (I discovered and read East of Eden on my own, which is probably still my favorite of his works.) Are teachers still as enamored of The Red Pony, Cannery Row, The Pearl, Of Mice and Men, Travels with Charley, and The Grapes of Wrath as they once were?

Are people still reading Rudyard Kipling? Or even Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner? These are authors people talk about so familiarly that it's easy to think we've read them, whether we have or not. Some of us read them in school back in the day. But are people reading them now with fresh enthusiasm, or are they on the wane?

Should we read the literary giants of the past, or should we move on? Styles change, culture changes, themes change. Should we focus only on the present and the future? Is letting go of yesterday's art just part of the natural process?

As you can see, I have more questions than answers. But sometimes I like raising questions to think about.

*If you're interested: Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison, John Steinbeck, Rudyard Kipling, Ernest Hemingway, William Golding, Albert Camus, Pearl Buck, Sinclair Lewis, Kenzaburo Oe, Alice Munro, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Pablo Neruda, William Faulkner, and W. B. Yeats.

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