|William Lyon Phelps. Photo: William Vandivert|
Forty-eight years later, in 1940, Phelps had retired from Yale, though he was still in high demand as a lecturer on contemporary literature. On November 3rd, Phelps offered a lecture entitled “Contemporary Books Worth Reading,” which was in fact part of a series of lectures Phelps gave at BAM periodically, starting in the late 1920s. Here is the list of books discussed, from the program:
It’s an interesting list to consider 72 years later. Agatha Christie was already well established by 1940, and certainly she’s the one who has held out the longest—in large part due to Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Jan Struther’s Mrs. Miniver stories were widely circulated in newspapers across England and the US at the time, and they’re still studied. Boxer Jack Dempsey was retired at this point, but still very much in the public eye. Two of the other books were by accomplished cultural figures: Nicholas Murray Butler was the longtime president of Columbia University, and Laurence McKinney was a popular humorist. While novelists Nevil Shute and Percival Wilde were widely read at the time, they aren’t so much today (though their names are still lurking around the web). H.H. Curran, however, seems to be nearly forgotten.
It makes one wonder what will come of today’s most popular writers, along with the loads of books written by prominent cultural figures, 72 years from now. Will Danielle Steel’s work live on via some sort of media transformation, à la Agatha Christie’s Poirot? Will people curious about early 21st century America bother looking at Obama’s The Audacity of Hope? Will our current interest in David Foster Wallace become an academic industry? Or will the web replace books altogether, and books become fetish objects for antiquarians?