Thursday, November 10, 2016

The democracy of time

There are only two kinds of books -- good books and the others. The good are winnowed from the bad through the democracy of time.
Edward Abbey, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

Edward Abbey
I like Edward Abbey's phrase "the democracy of time." America just elected its next president. Some folks are celebrating, while others are protesting in the streets. But it will be years, even decades, before "the democracy of time" determines whether the choice made by voters on Tuesday was a good one or a bad one. Abraham Lincoln is today almost universally regarded as a great president, yet at the time he was a controversial figure. It takes time to look at things objectively.

So what about books? Does the same rule apply? Probably so. Herman Melville's Moby-Dick drew scant attention when Melville was still alive. Today it is regarded as a classic. Meanwhile, most bestsellers fade from view within a few years. Does anybody still read The Bridges of Madison County?

Yet I am not so sure "the democracy of time" is always right, any more than the democracy of the ballot box or the bestseller list is. Sometimes outstanding books are ignored when they are first published and are still ignored 50 or 100 years later. Some books that are bestsellers today may deserve to still be bestsellers decades from now.

Abbey himself seemed to be of two minds on this question. In the same book he writes, "Books are like eggs -- best when fresh," suggesting that new books, not those that have stood the test of time, are the ones to read. He also wrote, "Most of the literary classics are worth reading, if you've nothing better to do," suggesting that those books deemed great through "the democracy of time" aren't really all that great.

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