Thursday, November 21, 2013

News from Nowhere

A list of a hundred best novels has been circulating the Internet. What makes this one stand out among many similar lists is that it was compiled by an English literary critic Clement K. Shorter in 1898 and it contains many books that most people have never heard of. Tastes in books have changed greatly in a century, which explains some differences, but it has a lot to do with his method of selecting the books too.

Shorter accepted only one book per author and he didn’t select books from authors who were still alive. This excluded such great names as Jules Verne, Leo Tolstoy, and Mark Twain. The list is chronological so within it the books haven’t been given any preference. Often he has selected the first novel the author has written despite there being many better to select from.

While some books on the list have retained their value, many have completely disappeared. The oldest book on it, Don Quixote (1604), is still popular today. But Shorter had chosen delightfully many books written by women and many of them are among those that time has forgotten.

Although this blog is about the books that I have read, and I haven’t read most of those on Shorter’s list, I thought to go through it during the next few weeks. Not in detail though, and the emphasis will be on the books that I’ve actually read.

One of those is the last – and thereby the newest – book on the list, William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1891). It doesn’t often appear in modern equivalents. It was a relatively new book so perhaps it had novelty value. However, it was overshadowed at the time of its publication by Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1887), a veritable bestseller. Morris’s book was written as an answer to Bellamy’s and the books are fairly similar so why the first was chosen over the latter is a mystery. Perhaps Shorter favoured his countryman, or maybe Bellamy, who died in May 1898, was still alive at the time the list was made and so was excluded.

News from Nowhere (or an Epoch of Rest) is a socialist utopia set in 21st century London. The protagonist, William Guest (a clever name there) wakes up one morning to find himself in the future. He sets out to study his new surroundings and is very impressed by what he sees. Labour has ceased to be painful so people work joyously. Moreover, work is recycled so that people do both manual labour and creative tasks like writing poetry. Everyone is expected to do all kinds of work and they do it happily.

Morris’s utopian society is an idyllic place where the industrialisation has been stopped and the world has returned to a kind of pseudo medieval, agrarian society. Since the industry has ceased from polluting, the nature has recovered too; an important theme in the book. It’s possible to swim in the Thames, which was unheard of in Morris’s time. Beauty is valued above everything else, which isn’t surprising. Morris is best known today from his textiles and tapestries he patterned after a romanticised medieval ideal and that is evident in his utopia too.

It’s difficult to see why Morris’s book has ended up on the list. It’s written in the form of a medieval chivalric romance that must have seemed old-fashioned already a decade later. It’s not a terribly interesting book either. Perhaps the notion of a clean London has appealed to Shorter who had to suffer the worst consequences of British industrialism. Perhaps, only a decade after its publishing, Morris’s vision of the future seemed plausible. Or, it could be that Shorter simply liked the book. Whatever the reason, modern time has largely forgotten Morris’s book. Perhaps rightly so.