What gives a book staying power?
I started wondering the other day what makes the difference between a book that has staying power and one that will fade away and not be remembered several decades from now.
Many years ago I came across a young boy selling sculptured clay whistles at the pyramid ruins near Mexico City. They were quite clever and I bought two.
As I looked at them sitting on my desk today, I began to wonder what makes them any different from the primitive sculptures in the museums around the world, other than they were not unearthed at a dig and are not very old. They are made by indigenous people—in this case an inhabitant near the ancient ruins of Teotihuacan, where other artifacts that have been unearthed now sit in the Anthropological Museum in Mexico City and elsewhere around the world.
They are charming and I treasure then, but a hundred years from now, will these clay sculptures be deemed worthy of being called artifacts—apart from the fact that they were not laying in the ground waiting to be dug up—or junk? I see them as being every bit as wonderful as some that are in museums, and in many cases, better.
Merriam-Webster states of artifacts: something created by humans usually for a practical purpose; especially : an object remaining from a particular period <caves containing prehistoric artifacts>
I guess my whistles satisfy the definition of artifacts; whistles of twentieth century Mexico City.
Not meaning to be cute about this, I know a toaster from the twentieth century will one day be an artifact looked upon fondly as a representation of a simpler time in American history.
So, moving on to books, I asked myself what makes a book last and be remembered one hundred years from now?
When I come across old books in a second hand store that no one really wants now, I wonder what made them fail while we remember a book like Huckleberry Finn with its use of the highly inflammable N word and racist attitudes of another time.
I am not going to dissect it (I leave that to the experts) but it left me wondering. Does it transcend those issues because of its tenderness of simple friendship, a simpler time and perhaps its innocence of childhood that its author transmits?
What was normal and accepted then is not now, but we still find the heart of the book good literature. Its intent was not to be mean, or separatist or hateful. In its simplicity, innocence and humor—it stands out and is remembered by two generations, now. Why?
And will the books you read (or write) today be remembered one hundred years from now, or end up lying forgotten on some dusty shelf in a second hand store? And, if on e-reader only, be erased completely and forgotten?
Maybe the answer is how deeply the writer pulls from her personal experience.
As a writer, do you write a nice, clever, not ruffle any feathers—safe story?
Or do you dig deep to tell the real, gritty story, the one that dips underneath the surface to reveal the artifacts of another, deeper life? The one that makes you bleed to tell it.
Readers really want to immerse themselves in a believable experience that they may or may not want to go through themselves, but do want to feel as if they had experienced it.
They want to learn what it would be like to successfully (or unsuccessfully) navigate that world you have built, without having to go down that hard (or impossible) road themselves.
They want to end up understanding themselves better for having gone through the experience—vicariously learning through the hard-fought lessons of your characters.
As a writer do you dig deep enough to provide that type of experience?
As a reader do you read for other reasons?
Is the book you are reading now, providing you with an experience you will remember many years from now?