Emily Bronte is still awesome. Charles Dickens still holds up. Robert Stevenson is still exciting. Mark Twain can still leave the modern reader in stitches. Plenty of people haven’t read them yet. In fact, there are just as many people haven’t read any given classic as there are people who haven’t read any given best seller from last year. So why aren’t classics selling like Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey?
I admit. I read the Harry Potter series before I finished Ulysses. There is no harm in reading new books. Reading what everyone else is reading will give you a point of social connection. But if enough people read the classics, that would be a common topic to talk about just the same. Actually, finding social connections have very little to do with why we read books.
So why do we read books? More specifically, why do we read crappy new books. Why don’t we read more good books? Well, actually we do. Bronte et al have never been out of print. A friend of mine is now laboring his way through War and Peace. At any given moment, somebody somewhere is picking up a Faulkner or a Proust. But the best seller du jour dominates the shop shelves. Maybe this is a massive shake out process. We the contemporary readers are the test subjects employed to read through the slush pile of literary history and sift the gold from the sand.
The Japanese word “hitobashira” literally means “human sacrifice”, but lately it is a sort of slang word for the trendy customer who jumps to buy the “Version 1.0” of any new product (which are generally a waste of money) and contribute to the economic viability of the product until “Version 3.0” (which is refined enough to be worth the money). These trendy consumers, the hitobashira, are test subjects for a new but crappy product. Maybe books work in the same manner as smartphones. It is only thanks to the suckers who line up to buy the crap that literary immortals can emerge.
But that cannot be the whole story. Although it is possible that the proceeds of Gossip Girl might have helped finance the publication of Infinite Jest, there must be more than pure economics at work here. Because modern readers are not only tested for their ability to choose, but also for their ability to remember. Literary immortality is the result of remembrance.
Besides, readers are not fools. When the author is cynical and producing crap for the money, readers can tell. Of course, that is not to say that buyers of smartphone Ver. 1.0 are fools either. But the bottom line is, consumers can tell when they are not getting what they are paying for. So the question is what are they paying for and why.
No matter how you look at it, books, particularly novels, are curious consumer items. They don’t evolve like smartphones. New is rarely better. Good doesn’t always sell. But the bad is always exposed. That is why publishing, the business of selling books, is such a difficult business. It is a market place where Infinite Jest and Fifty Shades of Grey coexist. And nobody can explain it.