Tuesday, February 09, 2010

A place in posterity is a bit of a lottery. Just ask Mr Melville Among the strange fates of many great books, the bizarre afterlife of Moby-Dick is a classic example

Robert McCrum,
The Observer, Sunday 7 February 2010

The news that Man Booker is to host a "Lost Booker" prize for the class of 1970 (including neglected work by HE Bates, Melvyn Bragg, Muriel Spark, Ruth Rendell and Susan Hill plus Joe Orton's posthumous novel Head To Toe) shows that Booker's publicity department is as full of resource as ever. When it comes to boosting their brand, these people are Olympians of spin. But they might be surprised to discover that the Romans knew all about literary retrospectives.

I've been reading an excellent new Penguin Classic, Last Steps: The Late Writings of Leo Tolstoy (£9.99), edited by Jay Parini. These "late writings" include "Shakespeare and the Drama". Having completed his celebrated demolition of our national poet, he reflects that "even in Roman times it was remarked that books have their fate, and often a very strange one: failure in spite of high qualities, and enormous undeserved success in spite of insignificance".

Tolstoy goes on to report that the Romans had a proverb for this: Pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli – ie the fate of books depends on the understanding of those who read them. As another Roman motto has it, there's no accounting for taste.

Anyway, in the casino of literary posterity, there are few rules. Samuel Johnson famously dismissed his contemporary Laurence Sterne with "Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last." Two hundred and fifty years later, Sterne's masterpiece is more widely read and admired than Johnson's Rasselas and has continued to influence writers as various as Peter Carey, Salman Rushdie and WG Sebald.

Good readers, like good writers, as Booker has discovered to its cost over the years, are rarer than hen's teeth. According to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, there are four classes of reader. First, there are what he called "the sponges", who absorb whatever they read and retain it in nearly the same state "only a little dirtied". Then there are "sand glasses", who retain nothing and are content only to get through a book for the sake of passing the time. Third, there are what Coleridge calls "strain-bags" who retain just the dregs of what they read. Finally, best of all there are "Mogul diamonds", rare and valuable, who profit by what they read, and enable others to profit too. The "Lost Bookers" shortlist will be chosen by some "Mogul diamonds" before the whole thing is thrown open to the public, another kind of lottery for titles that have already endured many vicissitudes.
Read the rest of Robert McCrum's artice at The Observer.

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