When I was younger, my mother used to regularly lament the times in which we lived. Whenever shocking news of modern depravity arrived, she’d console herself with memories of better days gone by. If, say, a neighbor reported that her daughter was sharing an apartment lease but not a marriage certificate with a man, my mother would cluck her tongue and tell me, “When I was growing up, people just didn’t do that.” I was an adult before I understood that she wasn’t remembering the past, she was imagining it. People did do that, and they did other even more unmentionable things. They did them when my mother was a girl, and her mother before her, all the way back to Australopithecine days. Lucy‘s mom probably thought bipedal locomotion was a scandal.
The only real effect my mother’s rose-tinted idea of history had on me was incredibly minor. In my early years as a lit major, I had a bit of difficulty with the chronology of 19th-century English authors. Since (in mom’s view) morals were in perpetual decline, how could Austen’s uncorseted heroines have taken private strolls with gentlemen so many years before the Victorians came along and covered up their table legs . . . pardon me, table limbs? I’ve since sorted that out. So while there was a period when I sought to disabuse my mother of the notion that the world has only lately slid toward hell in a handbasket, I am now content to let her be.
I’m tempted, though, to gift her with a copy of one recent publication. The Fabliaux is a handsomely appointed (sumptuous purple and gold hardcover! sewn-in ribbon bookmark!) collection of medieval poetry newly translated from the French. As the scholarly introduction indicates, these rhymes were not only influential on such classic authors as Chaucer and Boccaccio, but also wildly popular in their own time. There’s no better place to turn to find out what entertained the pious peasants and high-minded nobles of yore. What they craved, apparently, was more raunch and bawdry than you’ll find in a dozen Judd Apatow movies. There’s the story of the blacksmith’s apprentice with the “well-sharpened tool,” and the tale of the devil who catches a fart in a bag instead of a soul, and the one about the knight who can converse with a countess’s . . . let’s just say their chat is intimate.
I won’t really be giving my mother a copy (and I will be keeping mine well away from her grandkids for a while), but I do think it’s good to remind ourselves every so often that there’s no such thing as a Golden Age. Each era is a mix of good and bad, and—ribaldry and religion both having fervent proponents—you can’t always tell for sure which is which. Maybe I’m uncomfortable to have dragged this column into the gutter and am stretching to make a point, but I think there’s a lesson here for those in the book business.
Or at least for those who cover it in the mainstream media. In article after article I hear wailing and gnashing of teeth about the decline of the industry. Will competition from corporate giants eliminate the little guys? What about consolidation of the Big Six, Five, Four, Three, Two, None? Why isn’t serious art selling as well as celebrity trash? Well, the number of independent bookstores has grown every year since 2009, and there are dozens, if not hundreds, of visionary boutique publishers springing to life across the country. And art has never sold as well as trash (although if you wait 800 years, sometimes the trash becomes art–read another fabliau if you don’t believe me).
The frontline troops aren’t the doomsayers, I should stress. Almost to a person, the booksellers, publishers, and sales reps that I meet are talking about the abundance of great stories there are to read and about the tremendous bond they feel with the community of readers they serve. They aren’t looking back and thinking that it used to be easier or better to do what they do. They just do it, and do it well. That’s Golden Age enough for me.