Thursday, April 4, 2013

A Tale of 2 Books, and 2 More

Sometimes I pick up an older book (defined as something published over the last 40 years) to see how well it’s stood the test of time. I’m not talking about books considered classics, but those that are something less than classics but well received by critics and reads at the time. How well do they age?

If the book is Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb, the answer is not very well. A best-seller in the early 1970s, it predicted imminent disaster because of population growth. The disaster didn’t happen. Few disasters predicted in books come to pass. Very few.

I’ve been reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, first published in 1980 (my edition is dated 1995). The book appeared long before the internet, social media, web sites, blogs, cell phones (not to mention smart phones) and every other communication medium and device we consider indispensable. The essays were loosely based on a series of lectures she gave at a university. It was her close friend and poet Luci Shaw who urged L’Engle to turn the lectures into essays.

The book has aged very well indeed. L’Engle speaks to concerns that transcend time – writing, art, creativity, faith, inspiration. All of the questions she raises are as pertinent today as they were 30 years ago. So are her answersAnd her prose, clean and concise as it is, sounds contemporary. (This book, by the way, is filled with great quotations, both her own and those by others; I’d share some but I’m going to use them.) (Buy your own copy.)

Another book that’s aged well is Sleeping Preacher: Poems by Julia Kasdorf, first published in 1992. Poetry (in theory) might be less prone to becoming dated, but poetry has its fashions and styles as much as any other kind of writing. It wasn’t that long ago when prose poems were all the rage.

I suspect one reason for Sleeping Preacher aging well is Kasdorf’s subjects and themes – the Mennonite community she grew up in and eventually left in Pennsylvania. Change comes slowly to these communities, and her poems seek out the timeless, the valuable, the things of memory and the things that matter. The writing is clear, the words sharp – and both clarity and sharpness are never out of style.

And then we have two contemporary books purchased with anticipation, almost eagerness.

One was by a favorite author, a writer of mystery and suspense who has written a series of books about a detective (that’s even been a television series). And then – disappointment, expectations crashingly disappointed. The writing was fine – but after 14 pages of gradual buildup about what was obviously the murder of a young child, I stopped, closed the book and said no, not interested. The world is filled with enough ugliness and horror; I don’t need more, even in fiction.

The second was a collection short stories, rather celebrated and even recipient of a literary prize or two. I managed my way through three stories. The writing was precise and spare. But the stories (which the cover and the blurb on Amazon neglect to mention) are all about sex. I stopped with the one on wife-swapping. Sorry, not interested. Yes, I’m an old-fashioned cretin. Some is okay but don’t give me a book that suggests life is all about sex and nothing else. And I’m not interested in upper-middle-class people indulging their whims and fancies. The only thing worse is a story or novel about academic types indulging their whims and fancies.

I set that book aside, and pulled the L’Engle book from the shelf. I was glad I did.


Maureen said...

Thank you for the intro about Julia Kasdorf's collection. I've read some of her work but this one is not familiar; I'll put it on my list.

L'Engle is always good to read, as is Luci Shaw.

Anonymous said...

a book's travel in time
how long will they last
in the mind
on the shelf
in the hand?

diana said...

I say, thank God for a few old-fashioned cretins in this world. It gets old. Unless there is something underneath it, something germane to plot or character development, why do we need to read about this stuff? I'm all for good, 'earthy' writing when it fits and works, but gratuitous sex or violence is just plain exhausting and demoralizing. And Madeleine ages incredibly well, at least most of her earlier non-fiction does. LOVE it. (and Julia, too - never read the population one...)