Relatively few books survive in active readership from one generation to another, and fewer still strike a chord of enthusiasm that lasts longer. Books that once commanded wide admiration can eventually sink. Sir Walter Scott’s novels and those of James Fenimore Cooper are not much read these days, though at least we remember who wrote Ivanhoe and The Last of the Mohicans. Other writers have dropped more precipitously into obscurity. Robert Southey was poet laureate and held rank in public estimation with Wordsworth and Coleridge, but is now a footnote in histories of the Romantic movement. Does anyone read Thalaba the Destroyer or Roderick the Last of the Goths?
One of us has actually given the latter a try and is ready to join with the collective wisdom that remembers Southey mostly because he is mocked in the opening lines of Byron's dedication of Don Juan, "Bob Southey! You're a poet—Poet laureate..."
But in general if a book has been held in high esteem for a generation or two it is probably worth a look. This may not be a meets-every-case principle, but it is a good rule of thumb. And it seems an especially good moment to give that rule some exercise. We live in a time when many people who read choose to read almost exclusively contemporary books. One evidence of this is the decision of numerous colleges and universities that assign as common reading to their students books only by living authors.
While we have nothing in particular against writers with active circulatory systems, we do think something must be said for the others—for the non-respirators. Of the 300 some colleges and universities we have studied in our Beach Books project, only 8 assigned a book published before 1990. Tulane College is typical in its insistence that it wants students to discuss “a timely topic,”—and apparently it can find nothing timely in Swift, Austen, Dickens, Twain, Crane, Hemingway, or even Gertrude Stein. Pace University requires that its Common Core Reader have “a practical application in students’ everyday lives.” That seems to exclude everything from the ancient Greeks to the First Gulf War.
We’re skeptical of this widely held premise, which is really just a prejudice. A book does not have to be recent to be interesting. It doesn’t have to be written in Twitter-length phrases to be accessible. It can appeal to students because it opens a window on something new rather than trying to capture the already familiar. And nothing is newer than a past that you haven’t yet laid eyes on.
In this spirit, the NAS is beginning an open-ended series of postings on books that have receded over that 1990 horizon that common reading programs seem to have declared is the limit of the contemporary attention span. Some of the books we will take notice of will be genuine classics (i.e. the writings of authors from classical antiquity), some will be “classics” in the broader sense of well-recognized books that stood the test of time. And some will simply be older books that we think are ripe for reconsideration. We are drawing no strict limits and we’re not constructing a canon. It may be we will visit some highly praised books that we think should be brought down a notch or two.
We invite NAS members and readers of this website to join us in this discussion. We will collect and post short essays in which contributors reflect on their recent readings. Each essay should focus on one book. We urge each would-be contributor to write about a book he has just read and, ideally, read for the first time. We aren’t looking for partisans of a favorite book who want to buttonhole readers to say, “You gotta read this.” Far better is the contributor who approaches this in the spirit, “I finally got around to reading The Call of the Wild, and it made quite an impression.”
The point of our project is to show that contemporary books aren’t the only ones that can profit contemporary readers. If an old(er) book pleases you and you have the words to say how and why, let us know.
Essays submitted for this series should be sent to Ashley Thorne at firstname.lastname@example.org. We don’t mind getting two perspectives on one book, but we will try to avoid too much overlap. So, before writing your essay, please email to check whether the book you have in mind has already been covered.
Image: Public Domain