I’ve written before about my problems with literary decluttering. But who in their right mind would want to keep eight copies of a directory that barely changes from year to year except for the entries that are out of date? Well – sigh! – me. And here’s why. Many volumes ago, I was asked to write an essay on a literary editor’s life for this sturdy compendium of information for people aspiring to a writing career. While extolling the value of making lists, I wrote that it helped to spot the signs of new publishing trends.
My trend-spotting habit dates back to 1999, when it was all commodity books (powered by the success of Mark Kurlansky’s Cod). In 2002, there was a fad for cute micro-histories with titles almost as long as the text – who today remembers Lord Minimus: The Extraordinary Life of Britain’s Smallest Man?
And so it goes. By 2008, it was all about happiness, with a generical range that took in the historical, the scientific and the philosophical: clearly something more interesting was happening than a dozen books with the same word in the title. By 2012, everything was a biography, as the (yet again) updated essay noted: “We’ve had biographies of food, of cities, of an ocean, the Ordnance Survey map and even cancer.”
The point about trend-spotting is that it helps to find a shape in what can seem like one damned book after another. It’s particularly pleasing when, like the happiness boom, it connects different disciplines and appears to be driven by something more significant than simply publishers out to replicate the last big thing. Happiness led to wellbeing, which in turn led to mindfulness. This says something about social neuroses and efforts to analyse, solve and exploit them. With hindsight, it doesn’t seem coincidental that this strand of thinking and publishing coincided with the financial crash of 2007-8.
And hindsight is what those eight volumes of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook give me. They represent a historiography of my reading life, and the points at which it intersected with the wider culture, long after the books involved have been jettisoned.
Watch this space.