Whenever I walk into my local chain bookstore, I am immediately attracted to a display near the entrance which bears the enticing banner, “Former Bestsellers.”
Here reside the Grishams, the Clancys, and the Kings of last year and the year before, pushed off the pedestal of the New and the Now by the never-ceasing flood that issues from the mouth of modern publishing. It is a great place to grab a good read, cheap.
It is, alas, the fate of even the most successful book to eventually become a “former.” A quick consultation of the New York Times bestseller list reveals that the number one hardcover fiction book of this first week of 2015 is Gray Mountain by John Grisham. It is, I am sure, an efficient and effective novel, but if we could leap forward two or three hundred years and conduct a cyborg-on-the-street interview, what is the likelihood that any of our subjects would be able to name the characters or recount the plot of Gray Mountain?
Of course I’m being unfair to Grisham, a writer who is a straightforward, popular entertainer of the moment with no aspirations to membership in the Pantheon. Might we do better asking our 24th century citizen about A Farewell to Arms, or Lolita, or Portnoy’s Complaint? Yes? Umm… no, I think.
What could we ask about with any chance of success — never mind centuries from now, but even today? (Outside the halls of the English Department, I fear that the great works of Hemingway, Nabokov, and Roth wouldn’t fare any better than Forever Amber — and if you’ve never heard of that one, that’s my point, and if you have… oh, just sit down and be quiet!) Here’s a guess — Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Rumplestilskin, Hansel and Gretel, stories that were already old when Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm first collected them two hundred years ago.
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