Back to the Future
I probably never would have chosen to read the book if I wasn’t at least partially obsessive, unable to walk past a pile of discarded paperbacks on the street without going through them. I try to pick carefully, though, because of a personal economic policy: if I acquire a book, I have to read it, roughly in the order in which I got it. That’s how I ended up reading Moby-Dick. I’m glad I was never forced to read it in high school, ‘cause it seems like it’d‘ve been a righteous slog, but being able to take my time with it now has been quite pleasant (like the entire chapter-long meditation on the color white).
It’s also been nice, amid news/bloggy/cell/textual bustle, to be able to enter into that strange slipstream of Great Literature. But how timeless is it, really? Besides a school or a church, where was the last place you saw anybody reading a book that pre-dated the Civil War? How many are even still in print? That’s not to say that people should be reading more books whose language is outdated (and their spellings wyrd) or even that they shouldn’t be reading them, just to point out that the notion of a ‘timeless’ canon is troublesome to begin with. As composer Lou Harrison said (and Sonic Youth quoted), ‘everything comes to an end, even the 20th century.’ The 21st century, too. And the 19th.
The idea of a canon is worth considering, though, because of the strength it carries. There is an undeniable power in intimately connecting oneself with a work that has been vetted by millions. I’ve enjoyed Moby-Dick, for example, as an activity that my grandmother would not only understand without explanation, but almost certainly engaged in when she was younger. It becomes a more fascinating question when discussing music, because music — at least the kind that most of us probably listen to — is far from timeless.
Whether or not it is conscious, the very notion of a listener weeding through the vast amounts of albums and songs available for consumption and acquiring ones to listen to repeatedly shows an innate concern for the permanent record. That’s why people rate music. Is it worth my time? How much of my time is it worth? Is it music that will only make me happy for a short period of time? Or is it music I’m going to want to listen to every day for years? Music that I care enough about to back-up, copy for friends, insure that I possess a physical copy of?
It has been suggested that very few "legendary" musicians will be listened to a century from now. Usually topping the list of so-called universal carriers are The Beatles and Bob Marley. These are sweet thoughts. But will they be listened to without footnotes? Marley’s small axe felling a large tree is surely a more powerful metaphor than Paul McCartney’s yellow submarine roaming the sea of green, but will either make sense in the future? Will there be axes? Or trees? Or submarines? (Maybe with the rising ocean levels and our impending return to the sea and all, "Yellow Submarine" will take on new complexity and Ringo will be hailed as a sage.) (Or maybe not.)
Last week, the Library of Congress added Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation (1988) to their National Recording Registry. They also added Stevie Wonder’s Song in the Key of Life (1976), Frank Zappa’s ‘We’re Only In It For The Money’ (1967) and singles by Buddy Holly (‘That’ll Be The Day’), Fats Domino (‘Blueberry Hill’), and Roy Acuff (the traditional hobo song ‘Wabash Cannonball’). Also, they added a field recording of a foghorn, the first trans-Atlantic phone conversation, the 50th anniversary of the electric light (starring President Hoover, Marie Curie, and Albert Einstein), several radio plays, a boxing match, and a bunch of other stuff that very few people likely carry with them on their iPods. These are artifacts that have been, more or less, stamped by experts as worthy of preservation. But will people really listen to them?
Somewhat paradoxically (or completely logically, in a spiritual sense), thinking about permanence and history is the same as thinking about mortality and death. Who doesn’t want to discover something that will last? I like to think of my favorite albums as sturdy and solid, capable of lasting me for the rest of my life. Maybe that’s probably not even true, given the unpredictability of human existence. Some, like Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks (and its alternate shadow version) were made before I was born, and I would like to believe that they will continue to make sense to other people born after their creation, or after my death.
But who knows? Maybe one of Dylan’s crappy ’80s albums will be the one that people remember. After all, Moby-Dick was considered an abject failure during Herman Melville’s lifetime, only deemed classic some years after his death by the historical anointment of literary critic Lewis Mumford. Everything begins again, even the 19th century.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at wunderkammern27.com.