Tuesday, April 03, 2012

All those books: staring into the future

Aline’s post of yesterday got me thinking in a similarly long-term way but in a slightly different direction.

I don’t really expect to see the centenary of my birth (although it would be very interesting), but I expect my novels to. Given our digital age, they will travel on into eternity. It’s been the same since books came into existence, although definitely more tenuously until the digital age. I’m sure that books that were never widely available have been lost over the past 500 years (referencing the invention of the printing press), and that’s really a shame when you think about it. We’ve certainly lost a lot of junk, but some gems, too, have disappeared.

This is also the reason for national libraries, most important of which is arguably the Library of Congress, the primary reason for which is the cataloging of all books published in the US – and that’s a very large market. But in the cataloging, books are also preserved.

Regardless of all that, my writing will go on in some form or another long after I’m gone. The thing is, though, will anyone notice?

The summer I was eighteen I worked at a resort in Maine. I was the pool boy. I sat down there from early morning until evening, catering to guests’ needs and wants. Mostly this involved handing out fresh towels, moving chaises and tables, plus handing out the odd soft drink. (They didn’t allow alcohol sales down at the pool. Pity…)

Since the resort had sort of fallen on hard times, there weren’t often many people at the pool, and if the weather was cold or damp (hardly out of the norm for Maine – even in the summer), there often wasn’t anyone to serve. Unless it was bucketing, I had to be at my post, ready to spring into action.

Besides learning the hard way that you can get a horrible sunburn from light reflected off the surface of water – even if you think you’re safely under an umbrella – I discovered crime fiction. My reading interest at that point was mostly with SF. I hadn’t thought to bring any reading material with me when I’d taken the job, and it was pretty hard to get to the nearby town that had a library, so I relied on the resort’s collection of reading material, mostly left behind by guests. It was heavily weighted to crime fiction.

Since I had to be poolside eight hours (or more) a day, I did a lot of reading. There was a huge collection of Nero Wolfe novels, Lord Peter Wimsey, Poirot, Miss Marple, and also a large number of novels by people I’d never heard of, and whose names I no longer remember.

Many of these lesser lights’ books were pretty plain, a few downright awful, but there was a handful that I remember being very impressed with. As with a number of things from those early years, the authors’ names have disappeared into the mists, but Aline’s post and my subsequent mental wanderings have me trying to remember anything I can about these “orphan” crime novels. After this particular summer, I had become firmly addicted to reading crime fiction and I’m sure if I’d spotted something else by these authors, I would have laid down my cash to buy a copy. But…nothing. I never saw another book by any of them. Now I don’t even remember the plots of these novels let alone the authors. That has me feeling rather melancholy. They had written good stories, but even I, who have an interest in crime fiction, couldn’t recall anything about them.

I often wondered what Shakespeare would say about his still-huge popularity. I know of a number of composers whose music is seldom played anymore (JS Bach was one of these until Mendelssohn “discovered” him in the mid-1800s), even though it deserves to be. How many authors have fallen into this black hole and don’t deserve to be there?

With heavyweights like Bach being relegated to the back benches, how can I expect that someone will be reading my novels fifty years from now, let alone five hundred? How about all those really good authors whose names I no longer remember from that long-ago summer? Sadly, there are a lot of books that have never been widely read, and the ones I’d read that summer (1969) certainly deserved to be.

A really comforting thing, though, is that my novels will still be around if someone does want to read them. I think it would be very cool to hear someone in 2500 say, “This is a really good story. I wonder who the author was?”

One more reason why starving in a cold, dark garret maybe isn’t completely a bad thing.

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