The Spirit of Revival

It doesn’t pay to be proud of what you’ve read, or anxious about what you haven’t. During the so-called canon wars of two decades ago, the issue at stake was which books professors ought to make people feel they had read. Also what they could teach in college. Canons in daily life, however, just demarcate the books you can count on other people feeling comfortable about in conversation. And these books are often capable of substitution—you don’t have to have read a particular one, if you know the rough feeling. You have read Kerouac. Unless you haven’t; in which case you can substitute Bukowski, Tom Robbins, or even Sylvia Plath. If someone else wants to read the newly republished complete original scroll of On the Road in hardcover, that’s really their problem, and doesn’t affect your ability to talk—you served your time, you’re available for conversation. You’ve read The Great Gatsby, if you went through high school English. And you probably read Beloved, if you went through college in the last twenty-five years. If you’re in a book group, you’ve read The Kite Runner; or The Tipping Point; or Fast Food Nation. The point is, all of informal reading life works by points of safety which exist because of canons. All of these canons are pretty clear, if rarely discussed: the teen angst, high school English, college English, and short-term educational bestseller canons. There’s a “major prize” canon, too: if it won a Nobel, a National Book Award, or a Pulitzer, you put it on a mental list of books you either will read or talk about meaning to, even if you still can’t pronounce the author’s name, a decade after the Nobel went to Wislawa Szymborska.

These canons are like sturdy umbrellas you can hide under if obscure books start raining down. That can be the worst: one of those conversations in which a pile of unknown, unfamiliar volumes is falling on your head, as if through a broken ceiling—because your freakish upstairs neighbor has overloaded his bookshelves, and he’s read everything, and now he’s looking down at you through the rubble, unalarmed. Why haven’t you read these books?

The last few years have not felt like times of safety. “Have you read J. R. Ackerley?” a friend says. “Oh, I love J. R. Ackerley,” says another, “and J. G. Farrell.” “And J. F. Powers,” says a third. “And L. P. Hartley? And J. L. Carr?” There used to be truffle-hunters who would dig up one forgotten book, and talk about it. Never this consensus.

It turns out the new consensus is largely the result of a single book series: the NYRB Classics. And the NYRB Classics are creating a new canon. It’s a canon utterly outside academia, indifferent to professors’ interests. It is not a counter-canon, devoted to destruction. This canon is devoted rather to “rediscoveries” and neglected books, but seems ultimately to be based on a principled idea of the truly minor, overlooked, or forgotten book. It is as if the older readers (and writers) of the New York Review of Books were pooling their after-dinner secret favorites in an aggregation that would be impossible for any individual to hold in mind. A hidden series of wires then drains these choices to a brain in a vat at the NYRB Classics office, which telegraphs the results to its rights department: Go find this book! Yet the consequence, the whole series, is one of those totally unexpected, organic phenomena that wind up expressing or even changing the character of a particular moment of culture.

It will probably be, anyway, the characteristic publishing project of the decade. The promise of a total internet cataloguing of books—like Google’s plan to scan all volumes in major American libraries—offers a sense of a tremendous future era of recovery and reuse. But it’s a project in which no one could know, in the midst of so many millions of titles, what exactly to look for, or what should be new common knowledge. Academic literature departments no longer seem interested in canon formation, in their moment of post-theory limbo. So the spirit of revival looks like three different undertakings, run together. First, an effort to capture the 20th century for posterity, by those who helped to create and sustain it (like the New York Review of Books itself). Second, an in-between-times effort to make book canonization personal and idiosyncratic before the digitization of all information makes it completely chaotic. And, third, the summary of a present-day writerly feeling that when it comes to influences, creators must look elsewhere than to the well-known old names—Kerouac, Joyce, Morrison—associated with canons that teen angst, the university, and even the Big Prizes of recent years have bequeathed us.

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