Saturday, December 22, 2007

`Bubbles of Artificial Fame'

December spawns “best of” book lists, a dreary end-of-year custom reflecting our fetish for ranking everything from villanelles to thoroughbreds, though they leave me cold. Most of the few new titles I have read were awful, especially Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, a favorite with critics. Not surprisingly, the other Johnson – Samuel – took the long view of such matters. In The Rambler, No. 106, published March 23, 1751, he writes:

“Nothing is more common than to find men whose works are now totally neglected, mentioned with praises by their contemporaries, as the oracles of their age…. Every period of time has produced these bubbles of artificial fame, which are kept up awhile by the breath of fashion, and then break at once, and are annihilated.”

We can only aspire to such optimism. I read a few enduringly good books published in 2007 -- The Collected Poems: 1956-1998, by Zbigniew Herbert; A Treatise of Civil Power, by Geoffrey Hill; In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas, by Theodore Dalrymple; Cultural Amnesia, by Clive James – but most of the best books I read date from earlier centuries. That’s as it should be, of course. Little of value is published in any year, the century is still young, and the ultimate critic is time. Here’s Dr. Johnson again, this time in his notes to King Henry V:

“Not even Shakespeare can write well without a proper subject. It is a vain endevour for the most skillful hand to cultivate barrenness, or to paint upon vacuity.”

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