Last week I went to see a band, which is a fairly normal occurrence for me. It wasn’t just any show, though; it was a date on a 30th anniversary tour, a celebration of a record that came out decades ago.
It did not feel particularly celebratory. But it did feel specific. The Lemonheads’ It’s a Shame About Ray is an album from the early ’90s, made at that specific time, riddled—to those who listened to it both then and now—with potholes of nostalgia, splashes of memory. I can’t hear it without hearing the echoes of when I first heard it.
But it’s not timeless. I’m not sure music can be timeless; it’s ephemeral and visceral at once, subject to the recording tools of its day, bent and shaped by so many forces and talents and skills and feelings that it almost can’t not be of a moment.
Can the same be said of books?
Every so often, an argument about “timelessness” crops up online; someone was shouting on Twitter recently about how nothing current, on the literary front, was going to last. My primary response to this is always the same: Why does it matter? We’re reading now. We’re not reading for later. Later can make up its own mind.
There is absolutely no telling what stories will last through the ages and which won’t. Any reader of classic literature can tell you all about the many now-classic writers who went ignored or underappreciated in their lifetimes. There are countless books written in previous decades and centuries that 99% of us, now, have never heard of. (I’m allowing a percent for the scholars and researchers and obsessives who might want to tell me I’m wrong.) There are also countless former bestsellers or award winners whose names we no longer recognize.
But there is something about books that seems to invoke a question of timelessness, of lasting, of echoing down through generations. Maybe it’s just that we’ve had printed books longer than we’ve had easily accessible recorded music. Maybe it’s the aesthetic of leather-bound old books, which lends them a sometimes unearned weight, as if the design itself makes them important. Maybe it’s the knowledge of the sheer amount of time that goes into writing a book—weeks in rare cases; months frequently; years, often. Maybe it’s that it takes longer to read a book than it does to listen to a song or album.
“Timelessness” is, of course, impossible. Every story is of its era, whether we perceive all the things that make it so or not. Anyone who’s not a straight white man and has read a classic is likely deeply aware of the lie of timelessness: the people who were not considered people, the rights that were not considered inalienable. When we say “timeless” we often mean “still considered relevant.” I say considered because this might not remain the case. Books fall from and join the canon all the time. “The canon” itself is an illusion: there is no one singular canon. It’s word of mouth and general consensus on a large and educational scale.
I don’t say any of this to dismiss classics, which show us where we’ve been and where we’re still going, which are still in conversation with the present, with the living writers we love, with the paths so many have walked to bring us to where we are. But overvaluing a perceived timelessness devalues the beautiful, peculiar, fascinating ways that a book can be of a moment. Of an era. A book can be a snapshot, a snowglobe, a bell jar. (Many, if not all, classics certainly have this quality too, but as I am not deeply informed about every era of history, I can neither confirm nor deny.)
Blake Nelson’s Girl is a precisely faded Polaroid that captures what it felt like to grow up white and grungy in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1990s. It’s historical fiction, now, and probably not relatable to modern teens, but that doesn’t change what it is, just how it’s read. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas were both published in 2000; both novels set their stories in different eras, but both also feel of a moment when literary fiction was expanding, breathing in, taking big gulps of fantasy and strangeness. The books that shaped so much of a certain kind of SFF—the cyberpunk stories and their immediate descendants, your Neuromancer and your Snow Crash—those books had to happen when they happened. They are classics now, though not at all timeless. But as the years march on, it may be some other novels altogether that tell the story of how we imagined the internet, once upon a time.
Tolkien may have wanted to create a timeless myth of England—something outside time. Fantasy loves to put its roots down in that outside-time zone, but the work itself is still of its time. Everything is of its time. There are reams of YA dystopias from the late 2000s that are so incredibly of their time that some of them now feel almost like they came from a different planet—and some remain sly and wise in their era-specific-ness. Much of the coming-of-age fantasy I read as a kid might have come through the wringer entirely differently in the last ten years; some of those novels might have been published as YA, or might never have been published at all. The stately pace of something like The Copper Crown is astonishing to look back on—as are the regressive gender roles in a whole lot of ’90s fantasies that it’s probably best for me not to name.
All of these things were steps on a path. In many cases one might wish we walked the path a bit more quickly, but here we are, reading books that may, a few years down the road, seem very of a moment we can hardly see while we’re in it. That moment isn’t always something big in the outside world—it can be a personal moment, a rough patch or highlight, a phase when you were reading only a specific type of book (why did I read every YA dystopia published in the late 2000s!). Or it can be the moment when we were all indoors, waiting for science to catch up to a virus, feeling disconnected or afraid or alone. That moment won’t just manifest in brilliant and overtly pandemic-focused novels. It will show up in other forms—in what we read and wrote, how we read and wrote it, and how people respond to the art of that time and its long shadow. Some of it will last. Some of it will be forgotten.
What happens when you read a book is not the same as what happens when a country, a class, a demographic, a generation, a subculture reads a book. The two things can and do inform each other, but the singular and collective experiences are wildly different. Somewhere, between the two, might be where classics are born—where things seem to step out of time, leaping from their eras to ours, resonant and true. But classic-ness isn’t necessary. Meet a book where it came from, or reject it on those same grounds. It only has to be what it is. It only has to exist when it exists. What it’s going to be is entirely unpredictable. What is for you, now, is entirely up to you.