Cultural Amnesia http://www.slate.com/id/2159088/ is a fascinating, annoying, engaging, intimidating, collection of essays by the Australian polymath Clive James. If you love nonfiction, if you like reading essays that range widely and read like a conversation with the most brilliant raconteur-professor who simultaneously puts you at your ease and takes you around the world, through several languages and across hundreds of years of popular and classical music, poetry, art, philosophy, and history, this is a book for you. I don’t always agree with him; actually, I am quickly aware that I don’t know enough even to judge if he is right or wrong, but it is a fun read. And while James ranges from Duke Ellington and Tony Curtis to Dante and Borges, so far I see nothing about books for younger readers. But in an essay on Schubert he brings up a point that we should consider.
James writes about Schubert’s tragically short life — he died at 31, four years younger than Mozart was at his death, and then thinks about what he might have composed had he lived even a few years longer. That leads him to think of the many Jewish artistic lives cut short by the Nazis. And that leads to a larger point that is missing from almost all of the books we write for younger readers: "the play of chance…the number of strokes of luck it takes to make something that will last." James is saying that it is a matter of pure luck that Mozart lived long enough to compose Don Giovanni and Magic Flute, while Schubert died after creating his Quintet in C Major. http://www.rhapsody.com/yoyoma/schubertquintetincmajor (you really do need to listen to this, it is magnificent)
Luck — pure dumb luck, that one genius contracted his fatal illness a few years earlier in his life than another, that one Jew made it out to America, to Palestine, and another was murdered, that one African-American was lynched and another survived makes so much difference in the artistic heritage of all humanity. We rarely talk about luck in our books — we tend to want there to be a cause, an arc, a moral to the life. If you, reader, are as creative, industrious, courageous, determined as the person you are reading about, you will have your own miracles and successes. That is a fine message, but it is bad history. As James shows, the most brilliant creator is still the unwitting pawn of luck — the breaks that do, or do not, come his way. Now some will argue that there is a fate beyond luck — but if you believe that, you have crossed into theology, you have left non fiction entirely behind.
Can we be honest with our readers about the crucial role of blind luck, will that be too discouraging to them, will we create a generation of nihilists? No, but today fantasy in the narrative kids know — the heroic journey in which there are many obstacles but a foretold ending. I think it is healthy for nonfiction to offer a counter — a journey whose outcome is unknown, at every single step.