You know that kid’s song “Make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold”?
I remember it from Wee Sing in Sillyville, but never mind that. I was thinking about this song recently based on a combination of my personal reading experiences and a few posts I saw about challenging oneself literarily, so as to be wise and informed, and not beholden to the ever-shifting sands of what’s popular right now.
The posts I saw recommended reading, not just anything, but old works. Old, older, oldest. As much as you can. Not just Classics, specifically, but just anything that’s still around after some decades or centuries, even millennia.
Now I know the charges that can be leveled against such a recommendation.
-older works are insufficiently representative of the diversity of our current society
-only a certain class of people had the ability to write in centuries past, so the perspective is narrow, and prejudiced.
-“old, white dudes” ect. ect.
So, first off, it is thrilling that in literature, as in music and many other arts, we have SO MUCH more available to us than ever before. More literature in translation, more types of stories, more everything, really. And many people these days have opportunities to be published that might not have had in years or centuries past. This is wonderful.
But it is a wonder accompanied by a problem. For one, when we have so much available, it can be difficult to sift through and find that which is of quality, and we’ll never get to the end of our to-read lists, for they are an increasingly unscaleable mountain. But, far more importantly, even the most amazing book that might be published today cannot claim that it has been tested by time.
Time may show something brilliant, even transcendent. Time may show it to be the best of its kind.
But Time has not yet had its chance to wear it down to its core value, to prove its worth. I’ve noticed that people sometimes have the tendency to assume that Classics are Classics just because someone else decided that, and now we’re all forced to play along. And, yes, sometimes you’ll pick up a Classic and set it down wondering WHY DOES ANYONE LOVE THIS? Why is this considered ‘required reading?’
I did that with Nicholas Nickleby. I loved A Tale of Two Cities and moderately liked David Copperfield, so I decided to carry on down the Dickens road. 200 some pages into Nicholas Nickleby I was so irritated by all the outright caricatures, the obnoxious exaggerations of behavior, I just shut the book and haven’t picked it up since, which is a pity, because there was some real laugh-out-loud humor in there too.
I thought Beowulf was awesome, but that the Odyssey was dull as bones (though I strongly suspect that was due to the particular translation we used. Translations matter).
Jane Austen holds up, obviously, being so universally beloved that there are a zillion iterations of her stories (including a Tamil Sense and Sensibility movie!).
Some people LOVE Catcher in the Rye. Some people HATE it. (Confession: I have never read it and I don’t really want to. Just hearing about Holden Caufield makes me cringe, I don’t know why.)
I love Jane Eyre, but darned if I don’t skip the St. John Rivers part every time I read.
I love Ivanhoe, but Sir Walter Scott was often mocked in his own day for his melodramatic style and for over-romanticizing the era of chivalry.
Not every book is for everyone, but the principle of giving time a hefty vote in the process of determining value often works to help us see strength and beauty and, well, timelessness. People still admire Gothic architecture and ancient Cathedrals. People long to go see the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids and Angkor Wat. Some of the old Mosques in Cairo took my breath away. So maybe people watch some daytime special about “Celebrity Mansions” or whatever (I’m 99% sure there’s a show like that) and that’s interesting and popular and fun–and that’s just fine–but I highly doubt that people will be touring them 100 or 500 years from now. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s my guess.
Good recipes get handed down, generation to generation, not only because of flavor, and rarely because of presentation, but because of nourishment.
A beautiful painting will usually be recognized as such long after the artist dies, because something leaps at us beyond the stylistic trends of the given era.
And a good book will often survive a flash of popularity (or even a slow start) to grow roots in the culture.
Only time tells what burns long and what flares out.
But, wait, Shakespeare himself was popular and “ultra-modern” in his day, you say? Yes, yes he was, of course. Enormously so, as were most of the others who have now become famous for their Classic works. But popularity itself does not justify a work, as we all know. It may or may not accompany quality. I mean, did you know that the movie The Princess Bride didn’t do very well at the box office? Yet it is praised and beloved more and more as time goes on.
I bring this up simply because I recently read a (newly published) book which I quite liked. I read through it quickly, and found the premise interesting and the writing good, and…that is all. I burned through it like a match. The story ended and required no further contemplation. It required nothing of me at all, actually, during or after. It was not an intentionally fluffy or light book, either. It was a serious, sad action-and-adventure work. I still liked it, mind you. If someone was looking for a quick, engrossing read, I would hand it to them and let them know I enjoyed it. But it left nothing in its wake.
Contrast that to the other book I’ve been reading at the same time, The Brothers Karamazov. I’m going through it scant pages at a time. I have no idea what’s going on–the plot and characters are still coalescing in my mind, slowly, slowly–and, frankly, I’m a little unsure what it’s all about. But I have hunted about the house to find a pen so I can underline powerful passages. It has made me think. It has made me curious. I already feel that it has opened up a new world (pre-communist Russia) to me.
Maybe I’ll get to the end and find it wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but I suspect not.
Now this may seem curious advice for a writer who is herself seeking publication in this day and age. Why would I recommend seeking older works, when my own work does not fit that category?
Well, first off, I’m not swearing off contemporary literature! I just think I need to adjust the ratio so that I get a lot more older literature in than I have been. Secondly, I still think that no matter how I may love my own work, time will still have to prove its value. I’m sure I, like most authors, would rather have a book that lasts than one that is wildly popular for a mere moment.
One way I sift for modern works is that I just…sit on it. I see buzz about a book and then I just wait. Yes, sometimes I’ll opt to get a book when it is very, very new (and I know that this is what any author would hope for us to do!) but sometimes I just let the dust of hype settle first, and see what’s left. If the book keeps resurfacing in the mouths of trusted sources, and keeps crawling back into people’s minds…maybe it has staying power. I have found hype to portend disappointment much of the time.
So, of course, make new friends–read new books!–but keep the old. They didn’t survive wars and famine and massive social upheaval for nothing!
Now for the practical application. These range from several decades old to several centuries. Some of the books below I have read, many are on my to-read list.
If reading older books has you leery, because you think you will be bored:
Red Badge of Courage (my husband recommended this one)
Brave New World
Peter Pan (such a childish fun humor here)
A Tale of Two Cities
Chronicles of Narnia
Romeo and Juliet
If reading older books has you leery because you feel you will be not be able to find authors of more various backgrounds:
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Ihsan Abd Al-Qadus (for Arabic readers, I have not yet seen him in translation. I’ve only read بئر الحرمان)
Amos Oz (A Tale of Love and Darkness)
Chaim Potok (The Chosen, particularly)
Luo Guanzhong, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. (I’ve seen around, comes highly recommended)
I’m sure there are many, many more…indeed, whosoever comes by, feel free to add to the list. A few of those are obviously a little more contemporary, but the idea is that something has had several decades, at least, to marinate and prove its savor.
If you don’t care either way, but just want some recommendations:
Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery (all of them)
The Wall, by John Hersey
Persuasion (my favorite Jane Austen)
Mara Daughter of the Nile, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw
Exodus, by Leon Uris
The King’s Fifth, by Scott O’dell
Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott
The Abolition of Man, by C.S. Lewis (Also, everything by C.S. Lewis)
Heretics, by G.K. Chesterton (and Orthodoxy)
Pensees, by Blaise Pascal
The Prophets, by Abraham Joshua Heschel (or Man is not Alone)
So, as you can see, I’ve not really delved into that many older works, and I’ve got a long way to go. I want to seek not only the silver, but the tried and tested gold.