Michael Dirda at The Washington Post:
In “Frames of Reference,” one of the chapters in John McPhee’s “Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process,” this longtime staff writer for the New Yorker visits his granddaughter’s 12th-grade English class. He brings with him a list of approximately 60 items mentioned in an article he has just written. “I would like to try that list on you,” McPhee tells the young people. “Raise your hand if you recognize these names and places: Woody Allen.”
All 19 students are aware of Woody Allen, so he starts going down his list. Only five hands go up for Norman Rockwell, Truman Capote and Joan Baez. Laurence Olivier gets one. In 2014 none of these high school seniors can identify Samuel Johnson. Or Sophia Loren. Or Bob Woodward.
McPhee doesn’t intend this to be shocking. He certainly knows the voting results if you were to ask other students about John McPhee.
No, what he means to emphasize is the brief shelf life of cultural references. Prose that overindulges in the hip can quickly grow incomprehensible or dated. Today’s “woke” and Adele are yesterday’s “keen” and Dinah Shore. So little abides and the present inexorably overwrites the past.