How many times have you heard somebody say that the best books have already been written? Probably not that often, we're a forward looking culture, if culture can be used to describe us. I'm not comfortable saying it myself because they stone false prophets in my neighborhood and there's no profit in that. I will say that the very best books I've read were written more than a hundred years ago.
Part of the difference is the language. I think people used to savor reading more than we do today. Sitting in a cottage or a row house with a novel illuminated by a gaslight or whale oil lamp in the mid 1800's was a major escape from life when escapes on a small budget were limited. Most of the early literature also had the advantage of staying out of the bedroom. I know some people think a lot of skin in today's books and movies is a step up from a lot of talk, but I've turned into my father, preferring a scene that ends with a curtain blowing in an open window to one that looks like a zoology experiment.
Take this description of how one-sided love grows from the Thomas Hardy classic, "Far from the Madding Crowd."
However, he continued to watch through the hedge for her regular coming, and thus his sentiments towards her were deepened without any corresponding effect being produced on herself.
You can find the same expression in relatively modern music, which may say something about how the arts develop, peak, and then dissolve into noise. The Doobie Brother's hit "What a Fool Believes" probably kept me from sending a postcard or two that would have made the woman on the receiving end search her memory, and then wonder if she was on the road to a restraining order:-) Never mind X degrees of separation, we're all just a Zaba Search apart.
I was discussing serialized literature with a newspaper friend of mine, who insists that it's a dead form because people don't have the patience to read a chapter a week. He clearly knows more than me about newspapers and probably about human nature as well, but I think part of the blame goes to the authors, who can't produce the prose or characters that would keep people on the edges of their seats for the next installment. I suppose it's telling that today's top Google result for "serialized literature" is a dead link.
Maybe the authors of 18th and 19th centuries also benefited from being at the end of the line. They weren't writing books in the hopes of selling the movie rights or the action figures, marketing wasn't that omnipresent. An author who mastered both the language and the art of oratory could make decent coin on the lecture circuit, but it wasn't the sort of required public clowning that so many authors are dependent on to sell books today. What kind of person would make a career out of mixing together snippets of their personal life and blatant attempts at marketing a book!
So, does anybody have a good recipe for greasepaint solvent?