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In which John discusses why we read more Octavia Butler than John Dos Passos these days, and how Hank's books managed to foresee everything from ChatGPT to Late Stage Twitter.
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Good morning, Hank, it's Tuesday.

So almost all books get worse over time. Like the classic example of this is the work of John Dos Passos, who 70 years ago was considered one of the great American novelists, and now, we hardly read his work. And that's not because his books weren't good then, it's because they aren't as good now. Times and people change in unexpected and unpredictable ways, and books that are useful to us in some moments are less useful in others. But occasionally, very occasionally, a book starts out good, and then gets better.

All right, let's look at two examples of this phenomenon. First we have The Great Gatsby, which was mostly forgotten within a few years of its publication in 1925. Many critics felt that Gatsby was inferior to F. Scott Fitzgerald's previous work, especially the beloved This Side of Paradise. Probably the most famous critic in America at the time, H. L. Mencken, called Gatsby "obviously unimportant." The New York Herald called it "a book for the season only," and Fitzgerald was devastated that it only sold about 20,000 copies. By the time he died, about 15 years later, The Great Gatsby wasn't even for sale at most bookstores. 

And yet, it turned out not to be a book for the season only, because Gatsby has a lot to say about class, and inequality, and the American dream, all subjects that would become more poignant and interesting in the context of the Great Depression, and then World War II, and then the post-war era. 

Another example. If you look at the best-selling science fiction and fantasy novels of the 1990s, you will not find Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower. It did not make the New York Times bestseller list until 27 years after its initial publication and 14 years after its author's death. 

Parable of the Sower is a novel narrated by a young Black woman living in a future America where systems are collapsing, the president is a demagogue, climate change is wreaking havoc, there's a substance abuse epidemic, and other things that feel just a little contemporary. 

Now Parable of the Sower was critically acclaimed when it came out, but I think it has gotten better over the last 30 years because it helps us to understand that much of our now wasn't just foreseeable, it was foreseen. Its explorations about how to unify polarized communities and collaborate across difference are profoundly instructive for us. Also, like Gatsby, it's just a great story. 

Anyway, Hank, I bring all this up because I have recently come to understand that your two-book series, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing and A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor are examples of books that are getting better over time. Now I want to be very clear that I am not comparing you to F. Scott Fitzgerald or Octavia Butler, Hank, but when I first read your books, like, I did love them. I thought they were incredibly fun adventure stories with a lot to say about contemporary internet culture and especially about fame. You articulated things about celebrity and the fracturing of attention that I'd never seen in a book before. 

But in the years since your books were first published, I've realized that they are also about a lot of other things that I just didn't know about yet. They explore, for instance, how certain wealthy individuals can form complicated, symbiotic relationships with groups of people who feel angry and disenfranchised to create divisive affinity networks. You explored how sudden, dramatic technological shifts can be overwhelming and disorienting and destructive, even as they are also thrilling and promising. In short, at least so far as your books have gotten older, they feel more and more contemporary, which is pretty astonishing. God, it's just so weird that my brother wrote those books. 

Anyway, Hank, I hope that 2023 will be a year where you somehow find some spare minutes to write, because I really love your writing. 

So I'll be taking next week off, meaning that this is my last Vlogbrothers video of 2022, and I wanna end the year with some weird news for ya. On January 1st, 2023, Vlogbrothers will be old enough to drive a car in the United States. How strange. And how lovely. Hank, I'll see you on Friday.