Literature as “What Survives”
In this 2003 interview with Robert Birnbaum, Jane Smiley said:
I am taking a medievalist’s view. That’s what I studied in graduate school. And when you are a medievalist you don’t study what’s good, you study what’s left. And you try to find good things in it. So you come to appreciate every fragment of every bit that’s left. And try to glean something from that fragment, whatever it is.
How does it survive? There are a lot of copies of J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown around. Not so many of Cynthia Ozick and Barry Hannah, relatively speaking. And way fewer of, say, Christine Schutt and Ben Marcus. Are they in physical danger?
There is also the priestly tradition — what gets revived, by whom, and how does it impact future readership or future revivals? (Justin Taylor did Donald Barthelme a huge favor on these grounds, didn’t he?, when he did the McSweeney’s tribute, which in turn contributed to new interest in and new reprintings of Barthelme’s work? Ditto Stewart O’Nan for Richard Yates, and George Pelecanos for Don Carpenter, and the NYRB editors for so many neglected writers. Smiley alludes to these matters in the interview, as well.)
Some say the digitization of things is the salvation of things. Nicholson Baker worries that the destruction of physical copies of, say, newspapers, in favor of virtual modes of storage, is woefully inadequate. Among other reasons: Are you doing well accessing things you once saved on 5 1/4″ disks? Technology changes. Besides, are you more likely to peruse a stack of shelves or wade through digitized information? The search engine is optimized to find specific things. The joy of stumbling onto something adjacent might soon be lost as libraries curtail or cease their physical operations.
Someone will soon argue that there is no such thing as permanence, or that permanence isn’t desirable. I’m very happy to have access to Dante and Chaucer and Shakespeare and the fragments of Sappho. Perhaps you think it’s better that we have only the fragments of Sappho. Would it be better to have none of Sappho?
I want to build a weatherproof, temperature-controlled underground library, and bury it for the archaeologists of the future to find.