The Commons: Resist the Tyrannical Now

Seeing the invisible at church or a used bookstore.
Appears in Winter 2017 Issue: Ancient Friendships
December 1st, 2017

I love the notion of "ancient friendships"— so much so that I don't want to limit it to our transactions with past centuries, essential as they may be.

When Wendy and I were married at the age of twenty, almost fifty years ago, I soon learned that she had a special affinity for older people, including those who seemed— to me, at the time—truly ancient. Over the years, as we ourselves (oddly enough) have continued to grow older, Wendy has spent countless hours in the company of people who are seen by others (unconsciously, for the most part) as out of the game, no longer of interest, to be greeted politely before we make a quick exit and get on with our business.

Something very much like this happens in our intellectual lives. "Chronological snobbery" extends with particular force to the very recent past. Too often our reading lists are determined by what happens to be fashionable in our circles at this moment. We need to be aware of this tendency and resist it actively.

The answer is not an inverse snobbery: to make a fetish of being different, "individual" in our tastes. Rather, it is to cultivate an openness to take writers and ideas on their own terms, a willingness to be surprised, to have prejudices demolished.

Years ago, browsing in a used‐bookstore, I came across several titles by the novelist and photographer Wright Morris. I'd heard of him; I'd seen reviews of some of his books; but I'd never read him. On this basis I'd formed a half‐baked opinion that he was someone I "didn't need to pay attention to." But what were his books really like? I bought a couple and discovered a writer of enormous imaginative range whose subtle and sardonic chronicles deserve to be enshrined in the Library of America alongside James Baldwin, Willa Cather, Henry James, and company.

Ancient friendships? By all means—including writers from a mere generation or two ago who, like "old people," have become invisible.

 

John Wilson edited Books & Culture from its first issue (1995) to its last (2016). He and his wife Wendy live in Wheaton, Illinois, where they are members of Faith Evangelical Covenant Church.

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