One thing that disappoints me about American culture (in general) is the impression I get from people with whom I speak that most of the books worth reading were written by people who aren’t alive anymore.
I was at a party once, chatting with another guest about books and writing. “Who’s your favorite writer?” he asked curiously.
I shrugged. It’s a difficult question for me to answer and is as dependent on my mood and circumstance as much as it is on actual affection. “Well, lately I really enjoyed Jennifer Egan’s novel.”
He stared at me blankly. “I’m really into Virginia Woolf,” he said finally, awkwardly.
“That’s cool,” I said, nodding. “Are you reading any living writers?”
He stared at me blankly, and then excused himself to go to the restroom.
I wish encounters like this were more rare in my life, but they’re actually fairly common when people find out either that I’m a writer or that I’m an administrator for a literary organization. I find that while people are generally pretty excited about books, they’re not really reading contemporary work as much as you might think. Maybe it’s due in part to the circles I’ve run in, but I don’t ever seem to encounter any of the ten million people reading John Grisham.
I think if you love Virginia Woolf or John Grisham (or neither), that’s great. I don’t want to disparage a love of literature in any way. But I do want to challenge people to read and support writers who work tirelessly to create the work our next generation will revere. I think there’s a good chance Jennifer Egan’s work could be help up next to Virginia Woolf’s work in a hundred years—it’s that gorgeously written, interesting, unique.
My question to you, then, is are you still reaching for T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, and Emily Dickinson, or have you already discovered Claudia Rankine, Nick Flynn, C. Dale Young, and Jonathan Safran Foer?