On Reading Old Books

Rachelle Peterson

This article was originally published by First Things on September 19.

Are the classics outdated? Some think so. “There’s nothing new, no sense of exploration or departure from what’s come before,” declared dystopian fiction writer Samantha Shannon in the Guardian recently. Shannon blasted the BBC’s new “#LovetoRead” campaign, which recommended ten children’s books, mostly classics.

The BBC compiled its #LovetoRead list from readers, many of whom evidently prefer the time-tested to the steampunk, slipstream, climate catastrophist, and other assorted subgenres of the sci-fi dominion. Popular favorites: The Lord of the Rings and (for smaller tots) The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The newest books—Harry Potter and Roald Dahl’s The BFG—stood next to such ancients as the Bible and centenarian classics as The Wind in the Willows. The latter may have summoned up remembrance of Toad, whose addiction to new-fangled things landed him deep in avarice and then in prison.

New isn’t necessarily bad, of course. It just hasn’t been tested yet. And is the old necessarily better? Some find old books not just dull but dangerous. The Daily Beast denounces “The Unbelievably Racist World of Classic Children’s Literature,” warning parents of TinTin in the Congo’s depictions of “Africans as stupid grotesques who worship white people.” Likewise, Peter Pan and Little House on the Prairie are threats to the moral development of youngsters not yet desensitized to the seductions of neocolonialist apologetics.

College students find it therapeutic to decry offense in old books. Last year Columbia undergrads, shocked at Ovid’s insensitive portrayal of Persephone’s abduction, demanded their professors tag Metamorphoses with trigger warnings. Such texts, according to four students on the Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board, were “wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression,” making them “difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.” The suggestion is that some books survived the centuries not because they were great, but because they were “privileged.” That word has the finesse of a wrecking ball. “Privilege” is to serious criticism what a strobe on a cop car is to natural lighting: a warning, not a source of illumination. As for those authors of old, their “privilege” consisted of reading the great authors who preceded them. Shakespeare, the glover’s son, read Plutarch. Unfair!

All books have blind spots. All eras do. We can look back and spy past prejudices, ridiculous and discredited in hindsight. We see their mistaken premises and faulty logic. We can reject geocentric astronomy, the rooting of disease in the “influenza” of the planets, and the race-based classification of the human and the “subhuman.” We see the futility of phrenology and cringe at doctors who bled their patients to cure fever. We laugh at the “divine right of kings” and wonder why Salem thought it wise to hunt witches. But should we avoid books whose authors accepted what passed for wisdom in their own time?

Several reasons support wide reading of old, even flawed, books.

Censoring history helps nobody. TinTin might stereotype and degrade the Congolese. That might be reason to keep his African escapades from toddlers, who surely are not ready to learn of King Leopold’s reign of terror in the Belgian Congo. But those who are mature ought to know the hard realities of history. We shouldn’t erase the Trojan War because it was bloody, just as we shouldn’t forget Jim Crow laws because they are troubling.

We benefit from the clarity arising from past mistakes. We can learn to avoid old errors, of course, but “the clean sea breeze of the centuries” sweeps away hubris, as well. Meeting dead assumptions—whether they are disproven or merely discarded—confronts us with the realization that we may have our own unexamined suppositions. What premises do we consider self-evident that earlier generations scorned? Perhaps our own generation’s ideological fads are not so permanent as they seem.

Reading classics is humbling. Myopia becomes impossible. Millennia of human history unfold with the pages of books—and with an authenticity that no textbook or documentary can mimic. Read the Iliad and you glimpse the grandeur of a bygone warrior civilization. Marvel at the mysteries of The Inferno—and at the epoch that thrived on such poetry. Read Of Plymouth Plantation and admire the pluck of the Pilgrims who erected homes in a barren Massachusetts winter. Whistle at the sheer determination that drove pioneers like the Ingallses to plough and homestead the West. Recognizing hardships in other centuries doesn’t erase our own. But the recognition can relieve the feverish sense that our troubles are overwhelming. Great books stand as testaments that civilization survives adversity. Thucydides’s History is the record of wartime. Boethius bequeathed The Consolation of Philosophy while awaiting execution. Milton composed Paradise Lost blind, and Bunyan penned Pilgrim’s Progress from prison.

Old books remind us that human nature persists across time. Rosalind’s love for Orlando, hidden in her boyish disguise but at the end bursting forth in womanly depth, speaks to us today as it did in Shakespeare’s time. Joy, love, loneliness, valor, heroism, grief, pride—we sense these anew with characters whose lives look nothing like our own. Human emotion isn’t limited by geography, economic conditions, political structures, or time. The stories of long ago reflect to us something of our own experiences, as in a mirror that mimics the major features but twists and alters the rest.

The litany of great books can, of course, come across as mere litany. Books that charm us in one season, books that shake us to the core in another, can turn blank and empty if we approach them in a dull spirit. Reading them for the sake of duty or out of pedantry is certain to miss the point. The best books are best because of their quirky individuality, not because they are part of a club of “great” books.

Modern books can be beautiful. Some will become classics, and we should read many of them, regardless of what we imagine future generations will think. They are our books, after all. But sometimes the most exhilarating departure from normal is to travel to another world. Old books are the ticket.

Image: public domain

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