Why I read old stuff

My reading list, most of the time, consists of stuff that predates copyright law, or, occasionally, was written when my parents were in collge. I seldom get much more recent than that.

And, to make this even less comprehensible to my friends, I tend to focus primarily on 18th and 19th century english literature, which can be, they believe, unbelievably dull. (Which perception is, in its own right, worthy of another discource.)

So, the question arises, why do I read old stuff? There is plenty of stuff being written now, some of it even good, and if I were to read that, I would be more in tune with what everyone else was talking about.

There are two main reasons. First, everything that is being written today is influenced by, and in many cases copied from, things that were written decades, or, usually, centuries ago. Secondly, reading old stuff reinforces the lesson of history, which is, things ain’t changed so much.

Bag of Bones, by Steven King, is one of many books that pays homage to the vast literary inheritance that writers draw on all the time. However, most authors borrow ideas from places that they never credit, or, just as likely, are completely unaware of. By reading the originals, we can get a better glimpse into the newer stories. I don’t completely ignore newer literature – although, there is the question of how much reading one can cram into one’s schedule – but if you have read, for example, Bartleby the Scrivner, and The Moon and Sixpence, then Bag of Bones makes that much more sense. If you have read Lord Of The Rings, then not only does the movie make more sense, but the vast body of Fantasy literature from the 1970s and 1980s makes more sense, if only because you know what these authors read in their formative writing years, and you know where they got their assumptions.

There is no such thing as a writer without influences, unless there is such a thing as a writer who has never read another work, or spoken to another person. And it is in reading the classics that we get to experience the things that have influenced most of today’s most important writers. I keep coming back to Bag of Bones, because in it, Steven King gives us an explicit look at his influences. Although not everyone likes King, I feel that his works are very important ones, and many of them will even be considered great literature some day.

My second point, things ain’t changed so much, is, of course, a quote from Driving Miss Daisy, and refers to the fact that most people think that we now live in an era that is vastly removed from the barbarism and prejudices of times past – even the times of our parents and grandparents – while, at the same time, mired in those same barbarisms and prejudices. Watch the movie. You’ll get it.

19th century literature shows us that we have fundamentally not changed in the last 200 years. We are the same people, with new toys and faster ways to kill people, but the same fears, prejudices, and worries. We are perhaps less apt to talk about them than our brothers of the 1850s, and less apt to stand up for what we believe than our brothers of the 1770s, but we are still basically the same people.

On the other hand, reading stuff from another generation – and in particular, another century – shows us just how much we have changed, and in what ways, and gives us new ways to think about the problems that we face now. Things that we are deeply concerned about now are simply non-issues in previous centuries, while things that they were deeply troubled about, we can’t see the importance of. This kind of perspective is essential as we go through life in our deeply introverted generation, thinking that we are the definition of culture and civilization. It just isn’t so.