How old is old?

One correspondent I’ve found through this blog told me just the other day that her 14-year-old doesn’t read old books. The old/new boundary is currently set at 2005, so ‘not old’ means that fairly recent books will fail the age test.

And here I thought I was a failure for not persuading Offspring to read old-ish stuff more than once in a blue lagoon. Being old-ish (very -ish in fact) myself I find there is nothing strange about books not written yesterday or not featuring mobile phones. Or even relatively vampire free.

As we oldies keep saying; back in the olden days we had fairly few new books and it was natural to read old ones. In fact, I’d take that a step further and say that I actively preferred historical books, and in those days historical seemed to mean they were written in historical times, rather than just set a few hundred years ago.

OK, Dumas wrote about his musketeers long after the period when the story was set, but they were still pretty ancient. Ivanhoe and Oliver Twist and Tom Sawyer (to pick some childhood classics that come to mind) were all written long ago, even then.

I think I felt them to be more real. I know I did crave a book that would mention modern things occasionally, and was really happy when a Danish ‘current’ novel mentioned the Hep Stars. But with hindsight I see that it can’t have been a very valuable read since I don’t recall either the title or the author. Or what it was about.

Other than the Hep Stars book, ‘modern’ seemed to mean set in the 1950s. Perhaps that’s why the musketeers made more sense? Would Offspring’s lives be richer for more Dumas or Dickens, Austen or Alcott? All excellent, but because they are old doesn’t mean better.

Anyone who won’t consider a pre-2005 book will miss a lot. On the other hand, there are a tremendous number of truly great books that do qualify. And since you can’t possibly read everything, age is probably as good a selection tool as any other.

Reading only books with blue covers, or just books by authors whose name begins with an M? Or only novels about vampires? No, the latter doesn’t narrow it down very much, does it?

15 responses to “How old is old?

  1. I have the discussion with my students quite often, telling them that they won´t grow up until they realise that a five-year-old book is a newborn baby, and that life doesn´t end when you hit twenty. Some of them even listen to me.

    But my daughters read more old books than new, and so did I until I started blogging.

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  3. I think it’s possibly a combination of the current era’s fascination with the new, and something about being young itself. I remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird when I was eleven or twelve and thinking it was a ‘classic’, meaning at least fifty years old. In fact, it was written in 1962, which made it younger than I was. Of course, it was set in a bygone era, which made it seem older, but I was quite surprised to learn just recently how ‘young’ it actually is.

  4. Yes, TKM has a feel of ‘old’ about it. But then you have to square that with the knowledge that its author is still alive.
    I used to read some light, girly books that were probably intended as ‘books of today’, but I raided my mother’s stash and also my much older cousin’s shelves. So ‘today’ was 1930s and possibly 1940s. Also still remember one that was about a girl who had been orphaned by the Spanish flu, so will have been set (and written) in the early 1920s.

  5. I do wonder if reading isn’t a lot more media and ‘buzz’ driven today though. It seems to be the case with books for adults–I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s any different for kids.

    I think getting most books out of the library made a lot more chance for random finds too. Newness wasn’t even a factor.

  6. As a child I think I assumed that all books were ‘really old’, probably because it looked to me that they must take that long to write.

    • You were right, Nick.
      (Shuffles off to cut another quill).

      That was my 14 year old, by the way. The bacon-sandwich-eating-vegetarian. No logic is involved in any part of her life, therefore it is quite useless to try to analyse her decision making.

  7. Ah, you didn’t have to admit it…

    Bacon used to be quite nice, if you don’t think about the pig’s backside.

  8. When I was a teen-ager, I read a lot of “older books,” by John Steinbeck, Theodore Dreiser, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and lots more. I never was a Jane Austen fan (I know this is sacrilegious) and I think that the only Dickens I read, “A Tale of Two Cities,” probably was a good thing, but others by him would have been better.
    I find that now I read mostly contemporary mystery fiction–now global, translated and not–which is exciting. But I feel like I must read some of the classics before I leave the planet, one each by Tolstoy, Dostoevski, Stendhal, others or I’m missing a lot.
    But I can’t break the hold of international crime fiction, as I wait for the next books by my favorite authors of the genre. It’s like a chocolate addiction; the anticipation is half the fun, then consuming it is the other half, until the next time.

  9. Kathy, I’ll be subversive here and tell you to forget about the classics. If you have a reading diet you enjoy, and aren’t running short of things to read, then life isn’t long enough to force something you ‘feel you ought to do’.
    That’s why I allow myself to read children’s books and crime. Occasionally something else pops up on the horizon and is nice, but I don’t go looking for it. After all, so many others have read Dostoyevsky. Why add to them?
    ; )

  10. I met a woman over the summer in a love park in my city. She was European, spoke several languages, and told me she read “Crime and Punishment,” in German when she was 15; that started her lifelong reading passion. I felt like, what did I read at 15: Steinbeck, Dreiser, more.
    I think I should give a few classics a try, and Thomas Mann, too, one of my well-read father’s favorite authors.
    But thanks for giving me permission not to have to do that. Now will you give me permission to eat good chocolate every day?

  11. errata: line one above: “lovely park”

  12. You know Kathy, I was going to ask what on earth you were doing in a love park, but you got in before me.
    You do have my permission to read those classics, but don’t force it. (That European sounds like someone who boasts, knowing how bad it makes the other party feel. At 15 I was too busy trying to read what others pushed me to read. No wonder I went for Alistair MacLean instead. Mind you, I can OBVIOUSLY read in several languages…)
    The chocolate. Yes. And remember you have to eat for two! (Some for me, I mean.)

  13. I did read good books during my teenagehood, in a family which encouraged that. However, when I was 15, I just had to read “Peyton Place,” because “all of my friends were reading it.” It perturbed my parents greatly, as I’d always read good books. But being 15, there was no choice; I had to do it. My conclusion was that it was a waste of my time, and although I wouldn’t tell my parents, I agreed with them. But I had to find out for myself; that’s kind of the essence of being a teen-ager.
    Yes, I will eat chocolate for two. I just did.
    And reading John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” at that age was a life-long influence on me.

  14. At 13 I was recommended a Graham Greene novel, which I dutifully read. maybe it’s a good book, but it was far too early for me. The recommender should have stopped and thought. I was nearly put off Greene forever.

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