Why Read Old Books?

In his book Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments, Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda says “For the most part, we all read the same authors, the same old novels and stories, the same approved masterworks taught in school.  Yet how many other really good books lie moribund, awaiting a reader to restore them to life?  Take up this New Year challenge.  This spring or summer go to the library or used book store and pick up a novel at least fifty years old by an author you have never read, perhaps even heard of.  Then do your bit to enlarge the canon.  Read at least one of the forgotten books of the past.  You may be astonished by what you discover.”  That brought to mind a time many years ago when I spoke to a large group of people about the Great Books program and some of the things we were reading including Antigone a play written 2,500 years ago by the Greek playwright Sophocles.  A young man in the front row asked, “Why should we read things that are that old?  They don’t have anything to do with us today.”  I explained that Antigone is as relevant as any novel on the current bestseller list.  It’s about doing what is right rather than what is easy.  It’s about religious freedom and forgiveness.  It’s also about someone who is too stubborn to show mercy when, in his heart, he knows he should.  And, finally, it is about the tragic consequences of his stubbornness.  I think all of those issues are still relevant.  I think that human nature and human foibles have not changed in the last 2,500 years.

My recent post about Will and Ariel Durant was written before I read the Dirda’s quote above.  And when I wrote about the Durants’ books, I knew that most of you would not know who they were.  In fact, my wife and I discussed that very idea.  In case you haven’t noticed, every entry on my page, “Readings I’ve Enjoyed,” is from long ago.  In large part that is because I want you to read some of the literary treasure that are slowly slipping away.  People didn’t just start writing fascinating, entertaining, and insightful books and stories five or ten years ago.  People have been exploring ideas like love, war, relationships and evil for a long, long time.  Indeed, before writing was invented, people memorized stories and passed them down from one generation to the next.  The Iliad and The Odyssey are two of the best known examples.

When The Cuckoo’s Calling was published a few months ago the author was listed as a man named Robert Galbraith.  It sold a meager 1,500 copies or so under Galbraith’s name.  When it was leaked that the true author was J. K. Rowling the book quickly became a bestseller simply because it was a book by Rowling – not because it was necessarily a fantastic novel.  Next time you’re in a bookstore or browsing Amazon.com, notice that the covers of many books display the authors’ names – names like Stephen King, Nora Roberts and Danielle Steele – in large, bold letters while the titles are much smaller and less prominent.  Why?  Because publishers know that we are likely to buy a book because its author is well-known, not because the book has a riveting, unique story.  New, unknown but excellent authors often have a hard time finding a following because we tend to keep reading the same old authors over and over.  And to some, being seen reading the latest bestseller is a sign that they are up to date, and “with it.”

Like Dirda, I challenge you to include a few old books on your reading list.  I’ll even include a few that I have thoroughly enjoyed.  They are in no particular article, and represent only a few of the many books I could recommend.

Show Boat (1926) by Edna Ferber – You may not be familiar with the novel, but you have probably heard of the hugely popular Broadway musical and/or some of the musical’s songs such as “Ole Man River.”  One of the interesting aspects of Ferber’s story is her sympathetic treatment of an interracial marriage in the deep South.  That was groundbreaking in 1926.

Gone with the Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell – This book was a huge success when it was published, and it was the basis for one of the most memorable of all movies in 1939.  At almost 1,000 pages, I found the story a bit bloated, but the novel is worth the time it takes to read it.  Remember as you read that the language and beliefs of those in the book reflect the language and beliefs of southerners in the Civil War era, and those of some in the south at the time when Mitchell wrote the novel.

Microbe Hunters (1926) by Paul de Kruif – If you enjoyed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, you will love Microbe Hunters.  This is the story of various early researchers who discovered that microscopic organisms were responsible for many of the diseases that plague mankind.  Don’t let the fact that it was written in 1926 put you off.  This is a history of how men slowly and fitfully learned what causes many diseases.  We tend to forget why the milk we buy is Pasteurized, and that malaria (literally “bad air”) was once thought to be caused by the fetid air above swamps rather than by the disease-carrying mosquitoes that lived there. De Kruif reminds us.

The 101 Dalmatians (1956) by Dodie Smith – This novel is the basis for the popular Walt Disney movie.  It’s well written and has lots of suspense and action.  Read it to your children, or your grandchildren, or any kid you can corral.  It’s really neat, and Cruella de Vil is really a devil.

Here Is Your War (1943) by Ernie Pyle – Pyle is the best known and most beloved war correspondent who ever lived – and rightfully so.  His posts for U. S. newspapers brought the everyday life of the common soldier who finds himself ingloriously in the midst of World War II to the attention of the folks back home.  And his genuine love and respect for those ordinary GIs comes through unmistakably on every page.  He not only mentions the names of the men in his vignettes, but also often names their home towns, and, sometimes, gives their addresses.  No wonder the soldiers loved him.  When the war in Europe ended, Pyle moved to the Pacific front where he was killed while on the front lines.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1830) by Victor Hugo – Who has not seen the fabulous 1939 movie with Charles Laughton as Quasimodo, the reviled hunchback; Maureen O’Hara as the beautiful gypsy girl, Esmeralda; and Sir Cedric Hardwicke as the lecherous Archdeacon Claude Frollo who is determined to either possess or destroy the enchanting gypsy girl?   The book is every bit as good as the movie.  This is one of many novels by French authors of the 19th century that you should read.  Hugo, Dumas (father and son), Balzac, Zola and Flaubert are all part of that era, and all wrote fabulous novels.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) by Erich Maria Remarque – Remarque did not make any friends when he wrote this anti-war novel.  The Germans were still smarting from the galling treaty they were forced to sign at the end of World War I.  Really, the time and location of this novel could be changed at will because it has a universal message.  That message is that people idealize war until they are on the front lines.  Then they feel an almost unbearable fear every time a shell is heard approaching overhead, and when they see their buddies blown to pieces like rotten rag dolls.  The title is appropriate because it reflects the disconnect between the men on the front lines, and those who are safely far away.  Things are never truly quite when you are on the front lines in a war.

Anything by William Shakespeare – Who has ever been better at portraying the human condition and dissecting the human psyche?  Over four hundred years ago, long before Freud or anyone else starting trying to really figure out what makes us tick, Shakespeare seems to have had it all figured out.  If I had to choose one book to read on a desert island, it would be the complete works of William Shakespeare.  With that one book, I would get comedies, tragedies and history.  And I would never be able to absorb all of the wisdom and understanding of mankind that he would place before me.

Any of the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes – Many of the plays written by these four giants are lost, but the ones remaining are certainly worth reading.  As mentioned above, we face the same issues today that these men addressed 2,500 years ago.  And 2,500 years from now, their works will still be relevant.

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