Google decided to figure out just how many books they needed to plan for in their attempt to scan all the books that have ever been written. This was a practical consideration, since they needed to get a sense of how many people and how much equipment they’d need in order to accomplish the scanning within a reasonable time frame. After much analysis of the available data, they concluded that since the advent of the printing press, nearly 130 million books had been printed. This total includes books that have been best sellers, as well as the single bound copies of master’s theses moldering in lonely university libraries. Google’s definition of book was that of a “tome:” what an ordinary person would picture when he or she heard the word “book.” Thus, Google excluded periodicals, recordings, maps and pamphlets from their calculations.
Of those millions of books that have been published since the first Gutenberg Bible rolled off the presses in 1455, only a tiny fraction will endure in the memories of humanity for any length of time. Books that today are considered classics have managed to endure for decades, and sometimes for centuries. Only a tiny handful of books are still popular after thousands of years: thus, the Bible remains both a perennial best seller and a book that many people still believe should be read.
The tongue in cheek definition of a classic is a book that people mention on lists of classics, that are then shoveled into the laps of college freshmen, but that most people never crack open. There is a significant gap between the hordes who pontificate that Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is a classic and the scattered few who have read even a single page of it.
Each year, books appear that are hailed as “modern” classics, books that are destined to endure for all time. Certainly some small percentage of them will actually be classics, but most will fade from memory rather quickly. Yesterday’s bestseller will soon be forgotten.
For instance, this past year, my daughter was required to read a historical novel. I suggested she read a book entitled, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines. It was originally published in 1971. Not only was it a popular best seller, it was made into a TV movie on CBS in 1984. It won nine Emmy Awards. I have fond memories of both the book and that movie.
But when my daughter told her teacher of her selection, her teacher rejected it. She explained, “You have to read a historical novel—you know, fiction. You can’t pick a biography or autobiography.” Eventually her teacher—after some intervention on my part—came to understand that the book was indeed fictional. There never was anyone named “Miss Jane Pittman.” But given that her teacher was born in the 1970s, she missed ever having been exposed to the book or the movie—despite the fact that it remains in print. My daughter’s use of the book was the first time her teacher had ever heard of it—and the book’s title misled her as to its content. Even the most popular of books—books that are cultural phenomena—will tend to fade with the passage of the years.
As an author, it helps keep my work in perspective. I realize that my books are probably about as enduring as my initials carved into the surface of a lake would be: given the vast history of the human race, with a future of unknown length, the odds that my books will endure past the present moment are not good.
But then, as the prophet Isaiah in the Bible wrote, “All people are like grass, and all human faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.” (Isaiah 40:6)
Our lives are but vapors, and so is everything we make: whether our works are “intellectual property,” monuments, houses, a repaired toilet, or a fancy dinner. Everything human passes; nothing endures. Even memory fades away. As the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote:
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”