Shelf Life

As I poked around the shelves of the Cranbury Bookworm a few weeks ago, picking up dusty and tattered copies of discarded volumes, I couldn’t help but wonder what may eventually become of my own work. There were some classics on the shelves, earlier editions of books that have been printed and reprinted numerous times, but many more are books that have largely been forgotten. What would the authors think about what has become of their work? Not everything is important enough to repackage and retain as a keystone in the literature of one topic or another (in fact most things are not), and while I hope that my book will eventually be enjoyed I cannot say how long of a shelf life it might have.

Given my status as a bibliophile and aspiring naturalist I found much to enjoy in Philipp Blom’s book about the habit (and even addiction) of collecting, To Have and To Hold, but there was one particular quote by Petrarch that struck me. Writing to Cicero, one of his idols who had lived more than a century before him, Petrarch lamented the fall in the ancient philosopher’s celebrity;

You have heard what I think of your life and your genius. Are you hoping to hear of your books also; what fate has befallen them, how they are esteemed by the masses and among scholars? They still are in existence, glorious volumes, but we of today are too feeble a folk to read them, or even to be acquainted with their mere titles. Your fame extends far and wide; your name is mighty, and fills the ears of men; and yet those who really know you are very few, be it because the times are unfavourable, or because men’s minds are slow and dull, or, as I am the more inclined to believe, because the love of money forces our thoughts in other directions. Consequently right in our own day, unless I am much mistaken, some of your books have disappeared, I fear beyond recovery. It is a great grief to me, a great disgrace to this generation, a great wrong done to posterity. The same of failing to cultivate our own talents, thereby depriving the future of the fruits that they might have yielded, is not enough for us; we must waste and spoil, through our cruel and insufferable neglect, the fruits of your labours too, and of those of your fellows as well, for the fate that I lament in the case of your own books has befallen the works of many another illustrious man.

Petrarch’s lament is one that will remain with us into the future. As time’s arrow continues on the more our understanding of the world changes and the more there is to know. There is simply not enough time to know everything that we “should” about any number of topics, and our schools specialize in a generic overview where important people and events are shrunk down into sound-bites for easy digestion. These often rancid morsels are then spat back out or fizzle away, and we always seem to be rewriting our history from leftover carbon copies. There are those who detest these practices, who bravely try to illustrate that accuracy does not have to be given up in favor of being concise, but the battle over history will always be hard-fought. As the author of Ecclesiastes grieved;

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.