I didn’t expect my nonfiction bookshelf to seem so dated.
On the hunt for a factoid in Ruy Castro’s excellent history Bossa Nova (published 2000) yesterday, I traveled past some beloved titles:
Agee on Film Vol. 1, a collection of the wonderfully rangey criticism of James Agee, first published in 1958.
Signposts in a Strange Land, the essays of novelist Walker Percy, published in 1991.
How to Read a Book, an updated version of the classic guide to intelligent reading by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, published in 1972.
American Singers, a collection of portraits by New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett, published in 1988.
How Fiction Works, James Woods’ enormously entertaining examination of the elements and strategies used by novelists, published in 2008.
Looking at the covers, I began to wonder: Would this book get signed up right now? Does it have a prayer in the Kindle store? It’s not difficult to imagine the conference room discussions at the top publishing houses were these under consideration today: “Face it, nobody reads essays anymore.” “Brazilian music, that’s something your parents liked.” “The writing’s great, but does anyone really care about those movies today?” “What need does this book answer?” And on and on.
Which is why even a relatively current work – Woods’ 2008 volume – can seem to hail from a whole ‘nuther era, a higher-faluting time when an editor somewhere thought it prudent to share one sharp reader’s observations. Of course there’s a ton of spirited and highly inventive narrative non-fiction on the shelves, but the abovementioned titles are concerned with something other than “story” – they’re essays and meditations and histories that offer a different kind of reading experience. Which means these ambitious and praiseworthy undertakings are bound for the dusty back room at the library. They just don’t sync up with our Snooki moment.
I’m wondering if they’re relics. And if so, is this troubling? Should it be? What implication does this have for writers, creators, thinkers? One disheartening answer can be found in another now-classic on the shelf: Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, published in 1985.