Just the other day I was again browsing at Lifeline Bookfest, the twice-yearly largest charity book sale in the world, which takes place – of all places – in Brisbane, Australia. One of my favourite sections is “Rare and Collectible”. Sometimes I manage to pick an obscure first edition (this time it was the American hardback of the controversial and prophetic 1974 French bestseller “The Camp of the Saints”) but even if I don’t, I enjoy looking at what publishers were printing and what the book-buying public was buying a hundred or fifty years ago. Old books are an interesting time capsule. For starters, people used to read a lot more theology and religious commentary. As for the fiction, virtually none of the names that pop up would be recognisable to even the better-read members of today’s public.
This is why this recent piece by Kyle Smith resonates with me, talking as it does about the passing – and unpredictable – nature of cultural contributions:
These days, in a cultural sense, the only two pre-1960 singers who still linger in the memory are Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. Bing Crosby, as Terry Teachout recently pointed out in Commentary, has more or less disappeared. A case could be made that, in addition to being one of his era’s most popular singers, Crosby is the single most popular movie star in Hollywood history. Certainly he is in the top ten. Today he survives in the memory of specialists and historians and suchlike boffins. To the broader populace, the words “Bing Crosby” no longer have meaning.
Looking back on his four decades as a movie critic, John Podhoretz points out that even if you go back only to the 1980s, hardly anything survives. People still talk about Back to the Future and Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Princess Bride (but not E.T., the biggest hit of the decade). Rain Man not only swept the Academy Awards in 1988 but was the biggest hit of that year, selling the equivalent of $380 million in tickets in today’s dollars. Bring up that movie in a classroom today and I suspect the reaction will be the same as if you brought up Mickey Rooney or Shirley Temple. Step forward, 1990s movies, and report to the vaporization facility. You’ve got a few years left, but only a few.
As the Who suit up for what I suppose will be their final tour (“Who’s Left”?), Chuck Klosterman points out in his book But What if We’re Wrong? that whole forms die out. He compares rock to 19th-century marching music: nothing left of the latter except John Philip Sousa. That’s it. And Sousa himself is barely remembered. In 100 years rock might be gone too, Klosterman guesses. Maybe we’ll remember one rock act. Who will it be? Maybe none of the obvious answers. It certainly wasn’t obvious at the time of Fitzgerald’s death that The Great Gatsby would be the best-remembered novel he or anyone else wrote in the first half of the 20th century. As for the novels of the second half of the 20th century, the clock is ticking on them. The Catcher in the Rye is moribund. Generation X was the last to revere that book. Teaching it to young people today would get you ridiculed. To Kill a Mockingbird? It had a good run but it’s now being labeled a “white savior” story by the grandchildren of those who revered it. Soon schools and teachers will be shunning it.
To say that today’s popularity is no guarantee of tomorrow’s status is an understatement. Most of what our cultural producers produce – whether low or middle or high brow – not only seems pretty forgettable, but it is indeed relatively quickly forgotten by all but a few niche aficionados. This is arguably happening at a faster pace today because there is so much more new output competing for our dollars, attention and affection. For sure, it was easier to have the cultural staying power in the 18th century. Still, personally I’d rather have the 21st century medical attention than the 18th century literary bestseller status.
What is far more fascinating than the mere observation of our tendency to cultural amnesia – sic transit gloria mundis, as Romans used to say about all sorts of temporal fame and recognition, which was perhaps one reason why it was nice to get deified in those days – is the question why some works of art or, more broadly, creativity survive and thrive while the overwhelming majority doesn’t. On the face of it, this is a somewhat circular argument similar to that concerning evolution and the survival of the fittest: why did some individuals/species survive? Because they were the fittest. Why were they the fittest? Because they survived. Many explanations can be offered for the classic status of Charles Dickens’ work, for example. But we are speaking with the benefit of the hindsight; are these arguments genuinely enlightening or just ex post facto rationalisations for the status quo? Why Dickens and not so many of his contemporaries, like Wilkie Collins? Do giants like Dickens genuinely touch on some timeless themes in a way that resonates with our minds and hearts no matter how much they and the objective conditions of life might have changed over time or is there some element of pure chance and accident?
And what will last from today? Bearing in mind Smith’s words above, it’s almost impossible to guess. Some of my younger readers will be in a position to think back from the perspective of 2069 to today and see the answer. But who among them will still remember The Daily Chrenk asking it in the first place?