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Novelty: A History of the New

Michael North

(University of Chicago Press; US: Oct 2013)

Image credit: Old open book with magic light and falling stars from Shutterstock.com.


Reading Michael North’s new book Novelty harkens back to the work of Hugh Kenner and Frank Kermode. Many readers will not know those names, and that is a problem for the readers of Novelty, not because North mentions Kenner and Kermode, but that he drops so many names that it’s quickly apparent that this is a book that requires more from the reader than many general readers might willingly give.


To clarify my own references, Kenner and Kermode were critics of early 20th century “modernists”, a term which seems archaic nearly a hundred years from that movement’s founding. Those two critics, in order to be effective at their craft, had to be familiar with a wide range of literature, often in its original form. Any attempt to understand T.S. Eliot or Erza Pound required inquisitive intellects, if not equal minds, to the poets. Include the work of Picasso, Dali and other modernists and the need to understand new disciplines and perspectives compounds.


There is that word “new”. “New” swirls within Novelty like a mantra. The book is really a meditation on the idea of newness. The title does the book a disservice, however, one North may not recognize as he clearly doesn’t work the realm of corporate innovation practices where novelty is discounted. Apple, for example, was chastised recently my “innovation experts” for creating a gold colored iPhone. The color was seen as novelty, not an innovation, as opposed to the fingerprint recognition button which was seen as innovative. Those corporate innovation specialists who want to sound more erudite during presentations should read Novelty, but only those who can see above the processes that so often straightjackets real innovation will appreciate North’s far ranging history and analysis of the new.


Novelty confronts the reader immediately with far flung references from its very first paragraph. It begins with a reflection on Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Fasrishta, the main characters in Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. A passing reference to William James and novelty “leaking” into the universe ends that paragraph. Flip the page and find Lucretius and Darwin and Boas, not to mention an unattributed reference to Ezra Pound’s command to “Make it New” (a phrase attributed and explored much more later in the book). Not to dwell on all references, but these first two pages typify the reading experience throughout. If you don’t have a background as wide ranging as North’s, then you will need to enjoy exploring references in order to get to the deeper meaning. Fans of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland will enjoy Novelty’s challenges.


As for the quality of the meditation, Novelty is inclusive, well-constructed, and easy to read if you resist a constant temptation to flip to the copious references. North, however, appears unfortunately bound by his modernist bent, and the examples die somewhere in the ‘60s, much like many of the modernists themselves. It would have been fascinating for North to take on the rapid pace of technological change, to make a connection to the innovation engine that drives the modern economy. Without this, the implications of “newness” freeze at the edges of the narrative, never completely connecting to anything particularly meaningful to the contemporary reader.


North explores newness from all of its perspectives: is it something otherworldly, or if is it the result of combinations and synthesis? Does newness arrive as a refitting of rediscovered ideas like that of the renaissance, or does it come into the world through new work that revolutionizes existing perceptions of the world and man’s works in the world? In all of these considerations, the reader must harken back to Solomon’s poetic phrase: “there is nothing new under the sun.”


Regardless of the process through which people discover something new, like nuclear power or cosmic background radiation or evolution, those things existed before the context of humanity was evolved enough to recognize the facts that always existed. Galileo discovered planets orbiting Jupiter, but his discovery did not invent gravity or the movement of celestial objects under gravity—he simply looked into his telescope and decided that what he saw reasonably represented a more correct celestial mechanics than that being taught at the time.


North strays far from his academic is expertise in modernist literature. As a good scholar, North understands that literature reflects its time, and he has gone to great lengths to include the influences on 20th Century literature. Evolution is joined by quantum mechanics through probability, information theory, genetics and scientific revolution as examples and consequences of novelty. References continue to stack up: Maxwell, Dawkins, Hume and Kuhn. The stories never amount to a particularly new insight, but they weave together through North’s lucid prose like beads collected on a string. A careful reader can sense North’s collecting and curating along the way.


There is very little to argue with in Novelty, because North never takes a position as to what “novelty” is. But that is the nature of a meditation. The meditation is one person’s cocoon of allusion, a holistic fog of private connections aimed at helping them see something more clearly. In the end, North reveals his revelation: a “Perhaps the most basic conclusion to be drawn from the history of the new is that it has a history all.” And rightfully, he concludes that the new is a timeless topic of reflection. I did not need North to point this out for me. As a proprietor of corporate innovation, I feel more informed about the history of what has now become a practice, but North adds nothing to the innovator’s toolkit.


As a reader of Frank Kermode and Hugh Kenner I have to admit that what I read about Pound and Eliot did little but provide me with more insight about poets to those who live in ever smaller circles of interest and passion. To some degree, Novelty does much the same. Whereas practical guidance on how to invent new things, create value through innovation and leapfrog competitors creates best sellers, there is little patience in the 21st Century for meditations on ideas. I’m sure North will find his readers, some of whom will argue vehemently and with furor over his points, but they will be arguing about points that don’t apply outside of the argument.


As is often said of such works, Novelty is monumental in its scope, but monuments are often just visited by tourists, destined to be cherished best by those related to the memorialized. If you care about the idea of “new”, or how “new” has influenced literature and art, then you must read Novelty. If you have a passing interest, and want to see if your passing interest can become a passion, then Novelty will provide plenty of grist for personal reflection.


If you are looking for a book that will help you make new things, you should look elsewhere. Novelty simply isn’t novel enough to make the leap from intellectual meditation on an academic topic to real world application that will affect the way people live and work.

Rating:

Daniel W. Rasmus is a writer, poet and strategist who lives outside of Seattle, WA.


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By Michael North
24 Oct 2013
Novelty remains a central problem of contemporary science and literature—an ever-receding target that, in its complexity and evasiveness, continues to inspire and propel the modern.
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