On Timelessness


A common interview questions for, among, and about writers is, “If you were stranded on a desert island, what book would you want to have?” Sometimes there is a variation: Top three books, or favorite novel, or favorite series.

I always stumble. Unless for a class or for scholarly purposes, I can’t name a book I’ve read more than once. It’s not that I don’t recognize the inherent value of rereading. We grow as readers; our opinions are far from static, and good literature yields different feelings with different iterations. But there are just so many books, and I’m always hungry for something new, something timely.

The desert island icebreaker gets at the alleged timelessness of good literature. What is our slice of the canon? What is our connection to the human condition? Where do we plant our flags?

Timeless literature suggests evergreen literature, a text that is always relevant in the same way for all of us everywhere. A few themes seem like obvious contenders: human connection, grief for the dead, survival, longing, sex, money. The miracle of birth, perhaps. It would be nice if universal human experiences were experienced universally, but our world is distinctly uneven, shaped by inequalities and responses to those inequalities. Timeless themes are always felt in urgently specific ways.

The collaborative nature of reading and writing can raise the stakes. As Fady Joudah put it in a recent interview, “understanding is not meaningful if it happens in a void. It must involve others, and requires touch. The timing of understanding is another story. When will I understand you, as you need me to understand you? How long will it take? Will you subjugate me through this process or will you rise toward equality?”

Stories about grieving and marriage will have different meanings for readers in Khan Younis than readers in Detroit or Portland. I don’t think anyone reads the speeches in Henry V and feels stirred to go to war with the French at Agincourt over a decades-old succession crisis, but the line we few, we happy few, we band of brothers has resonated with later generations of war literature. This seems obvious, but I think it demonstrates that what makes literature so compelling is not its timelessness, but its timeliness for the reader.

At a moment when the humanities are in yet another existential crisis, and there is pressure to justify the place of literature in social life, the collaborative specificity of good literature makes a strong argument against the environment-destroying AI-generated garbage that for some reason has overpopulated Facebook.

To a certain extent, there’s something reductive about the attribute timeless. In a class activity with my composition students, I opened ChatGPT and asked it to write a script for a Hallmark romcom (putting at least 4 grams of CO2 into the atmosphere in the process). It began with a small town. It ended with marriage. The template is what’s timeless, like the structure of a sonnet or a letter. If I told you I wrote a sonnet you would want to read it before patting me on the back, just as you would want to see if my romcom script about a plaid-wearing hunk who teaches a big-city businesswoman about the meaning of Christmas is doing something with that premise that you haven’t seen before. Genre is timeless. Formulas are timeless. What makes something stand out is what it does to and with and for its particular time, when a reader’s understanding of a text makes sense for the moment in which it is read. The human condition is a growing thing because we are creatures who are well-attuned to our context. What makes a work of literature so compelling is its ability to articulate that attunement, to give us the language we need.

In the meantime, I hope you keep writing. The world needs it.

Keene Short




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