When my monthly Believer finally arrives, one of the first pieces I read is Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.” Hornby’s polite sarcasm and gentle disdain of the academic suits the Believer’s editorial voice, a voice which, however, aging with success, must now search for ever new ways to seem avant-garde, if not anti-academic, such that now Nick, trying to sustain his pop-culture bias, must pretend that he’s never heard of Montaigne: “I had never read Montaigne before picking up Bakewell’s book. I knew only that he was a sixteenth-century essayist, and that he had therefore willfully chosen not to interest me.”
Nick distains blogs and amateur opinions – his going off on the Amazon reviewers suggests even an obsession with the problem – yet manages to credit this month “…that some blogs are better than others.” Still, it’s not clear why he must mention blogs in his review of Emily Fox Gordon’s Book of Days personal essays; they are good, he implies, because they are not merely “nicely written, light, amusing, and disposable,” not blogs, where the writing is, apparently, predictably jokey, imprecise, uncomplicated, and unoriginal. But that doesn’t describe blogs at all – some, ok, many, sure, but in the egalitarian atmosphere of the Internet, one must be ready to read cosmopolitan style, at the same table with others. It’s all a bit confusing, but we read on anyway, getting Nick’s point. And his point is this: “In some ways, my commitment to modernity stood me in good stead: those who cling to the cultural touchstones of an orthodox education are frequently smug, lazy, and intellectually timid – after all, someone else has made all their cultural decisions for them. And in any case, if you decide to consume only art made in the twentieth century…you’re going to end up familiar with a lot of good stuff, enough to last you a lifetime.”
The problem is that this voice is a cul-de-sac for two reasons: one, every age feels the same; and two, all writers make use of what’s been said before.
Consider, for example, Anthony Hecht’s 1968 “The Dover Bitch”: “So there stood Matthew Arnold and this girl / With the cliffs of England crumbling away behind them, / And he said to her, ‘Try to be true to me, / And I’ll do the same for you, for things are bad / All over, etc., etc.’” The lines growing like branches in the 20th Century sky, the poem is rooted far deeper. First, the reader must travel back 100 years to Arnold’s 1867 “Dover Beach,” where we find the hapless poet pining for what is not: “neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.” Arnold’s answer for modern man stranded by the receding “Sea of Faith” is “let us be true / To one another!” The reader traveling back another 200 years, to Andrew Marvell’s 1681 “To His Coy Mistress,” will find Arnold’s deeper roots: “But at my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near; / And yonder all before us lie / Deserts of vast eternity.” The theme that threads these poems together is the ancient Carpe Diem, or Seize the Day, or, as Janis Joplin put it, in terms that even Nick Hornby would understand, “Get it while you can.” But it didn’t start with Andrew Marvell, either, for the reader traveling back another 40 years, to Robert Herrick’s 1646 “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” will find the poet still arguing with his girl to “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” for “That age is best which is the first, / When youth and blood are warmer; / But being spent, the worse, and worst / Times still succeed the former.”
Imagine Nick Horby’s surprise upon discovering that “the postmortem life of Montaigne has been a rich one: he troubled Descartes and Pascal, got himself banned in France (until 1854), captivated and then disappointed the Romantics, inspired Nietzsche and Stefan Zweig, made this column possible.” Yes, not only made it possible, but wrote the first draft; imagine Nick’s surprise upon discovering that Montaigne was the world’s first blogger.