On Reading Old Books

Old books under discussion a couple places:

In Hello, Old Friend, Time to Read You Again (sorry, behind a pay-gate. I read the dead-tree version), St. John’s College president Christopher B. Nelson argues for the value of rereading familiar old works rather than obsessing over every new thing that gets published. He praises the virtues of rereading:

Moreover, a first reading of a book is always a pressured reading. Even if it is only the latest potboiler, you don’t know the landscape the first time through. You’re on the edge of your seat trying to see what’s coming. When rereading, you already know the big picture and can pay close attention to the details. You notice things you missed the first time. Your imagination gets a workout, judging whether it was adequate to the book on the first pass, or if you need to revise your previous images.

One of the things we discover as we mature is that the familiar is really quite unfamiliar, if observed attentively.

As President of St. John’s, Nelson is of course in the business of getting people to read and reread old books – the Great Books.

Over on John C. Wright’s blog there is a discussion of Appendix N, the list of works the creator of Dungeons and Dragons recommended as formative and foundational to the D&D world.(1) The issue is, as the title of the post suggests, a ‘canon gap’ between people over, say, 50 and youngsters: people my age – at least, people my age who are heavily into Fantasy, Sci Fi and RPGs – are assumed to have read a pile of classic speculative fiction, the speculative fiction, in fact, which Gygax lists in Appendix N. Younger folks cannot be assumed to have read these works; it is in fact shocking to find one who has.

Now, I am not a representative sample of the old guys group – I have no interest in D&D or roll playing games in general, my fantasy reading is limited almost entirely to Tolkien and Lewis, and even my Sci Fi reading has huge gaps when it comes to the classics, as this project here amply demonstrates. But – you’ll be shocked to hear this – my sympathies are entirely with the old guys: time tends strongly to winnow out the chaff, so that old books the memory of which their lovers have kept alive stand a much better chance of being worth the trouble to read than what’s popular among current books at any one time.(2) This process of selection tends to find the better works even if there were no bias in the modern world towards works that confirm a certain social or political outlook. If there were such a bias, the old books become just that much more valuable for throwing light on that vile practice.

The whole thing, including the comments, is worth reading. One point perhaps needs expanding on: one younger commenter mentions that there are good modern works that have a lower threshold of entry for modern readers

…but I will say that the former are more accessible for being modern, because the language and settings really will resonate more naturally with someone my age than the language and settings of older books…

This is not a bad point, but undervalues, it seems to me, the adventure of discovering the strange new worlds of the past. There is great value in immersing oneself in the unknown and alien worlds of 50, 100, 150 or more years ago. Today, the imaginary Barsoom of John Carter is hardly more alien than the real post-Civil War world that John Carter came out of here on earth. A 20-something would do well to open his imagination to a time when not every Rebel was a despicable racist pig – that may be a bigger leap than imagining a 9′ tall six-limbed green Martian.

In a similar way, the worlds of Dante and Shakespeare and Milton are as full of alien monsters and bizarre cultures as anything you’d see on Star Trek. Guelphs battle Ghibellines for reasons more foreign than Klingon honor; Hamlet is the monster who would damn his father’s murderer’s soul – the horror of which almost certainly escapes the modern mind. The majestic evil of Milton’s Satan was terrifying, not sympathetic, to the contemporary readers – a point bound to bewilder the callow modern.

The Orwellian phrase ‘multiculturalism’ describes as desirable a state in which one is so willfully ignorant as to be unable to tell the differences between any cultures while at the same time condemning the general superiority of our own culture in most areas as a vicious lie. Getting to know our own culture through great old books is a pleasant way to combat multiculturalism so defined. All that is required is an open and curious mind.

  1. A world of which I myself am completely ignorant. When I entered college in 1976, I’d never even heard of D&D; the freshman class of 1977 was full of D&D players – missed it by a year, I guess. More fundamentally, the appeal of RPGs has evaded me, even though I suppose I fit the profile well in every other way.
  2. The downside is that, sometimes, choices get made that make it hard to see the bigger picture clearly. I don’t know enough about Sci Fi to even know what I don’t know, but I had an experience with early Renaissance polyphony that has since made me wonder: if you search for 15th and 16th century music, chances are you will come across a small number of works from a small number of composers – Josquin, Dufay, Palastrina, De Lasso, and maybe a couple others. For example, Palestrina wrote over 100 Masses, yet recordings of only 2 or 3 are commonly available. It’s as if all we knew of Beethoven was, say, his 3rd Symphony. The same thing holds for the other famous composers. But it’s worse: there are many more obscure composers from that time, with works that no one has performed or heard in centuries.  I once sang a Mass by an obscure 16th century Northern (Flemish?) composer that some grad student had dug up from some archives in Belgium or someplace, painstakingly transcribed, and gotten a pick-up choir from Stanford to perform. It was both wonderful and very different from any other polyphony I’d ever heard or sung. The work had almost certainly not been performed for 450 years, and would not have gotten performed if not for some grad student needing a PhD project. (I’ve got a copy someplace at home – now I want to go look for it.) The point: Time’s winnowing is not perfect.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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