You might ask if I have any larger point when I gather up the Best Books of Year 18XX, besides the jolly fun of literary history. I do, several points, some of them contradictory.
In part I am parodying the mass of year-end Best of lists, which I enjoy and read with avidity, but also with the strong sense that almost none of the championed books – good books, worthwhile books – will outlive their authors. In a few years they will be gone. Or a few decades. A century whittles the pile – the worldwide pile! – down to a few dozen books; another century wipes out most of those. So my listing is a memento mori. Art is long, life is short, but art is also short.
The context is antique furniture restoration, but otherwise this passage from Adalbert Stifter’s Der Nachsommer (or Indian Summer, 1857) says what I want to say:
However, all means, even the most complete, would not prevent the ultimate perishing of a work of art; this is due to the constant activity and necessity for change within men as well as the transitory nature of material. Everything that now exists, no matter how great and good it is, lasts for a time, fulfills a purpose, and then passes on. And so it will be with all the works of art that now exist; an eternal veil of forgetfulness will lie over them, just as there is now over those things that came before. (I.4, 68, tr. Wendell Frye)
Identifying the books they thought of as important in 1812 and comparing to the 1812 books we think are important is a way to understand the “constant activity… within men.” It does not help predict the future except to demonstrate that the future is unpredictable, which we all knew.
The compilers of real Best of 2012 lists based on the reading of genuine 2012 books are helping books last for a time and fulfill their purpose, perhaps more than I do, even if that time is short and that purpose limited. Some books are intensely good right now. Who cares if they are worthless tomorrow? That plate of fried oysters becomes less valuable the longer it exists, so dig in, eat up. Most books get cold quickly, too, but that does not mean they were not worth reading when they were hot.
That Stifter novel, by the way, in case anyone was wondering, is amazingly dull, easily living up to its reputation. I just read a passage about the proper building of birdhouses, and it seems that we are about to move to bird seed. A representative sentence:
I also noted that I had studied botany somewhat, not with regard to gardening, but for my own edification and enjoyment, and the cactus had not been the least to which I had devoted my attention. (I.5, 80)
I should save this for my week (at least) of posts on this masterpiece, but I cannot restrain my enthusiasm. That sentence was entirely sincere, as is this one.