What Role Historical Books?

Are Books Ever Outdated?

By Red Velvette

To read or not to read: Are books ever outdated?

Possibly . . . but what about . . . ?

Let's cut to the crux of this thing: Why read old books? Are books ever outdated and no longer deserving of readership? Perhaps some works are stale (to be polite), but generally, I say no. I say that literature must be taken in context. Context of the time and place it was written. (Where would we be without Shakespeare or Marlowe?) And these works may, in turn, give their modern readers context.


The more difficult issues arise when we run into writing that does not fit modern social standards. Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner wrote about a South with underlying---and overt---tones of racism and misogyny. But I see a place for studying these works, learning from them, rather than discarding them altogether. There is a lot of good writing that can be studied if we can understand the era and social climate in which it was written . . . and then use the positive and leave the negative. Taking a Faulkner-inspired film, should we throw away The Long Hot Summer simply because Clara Varner was thought to be incomplete without a husband to validate her existence according to her father? Or should we continue to value that work because it’s an interesting story and because some young reader may still identify with Clara and her struggles? And it can show us a trajectory, a we-were-here to a we've-made-it-here.


In considering historical context, readers can gain so much by looking "behind" the story. In Flanders Fields carries the weight it does because of the horrors of the Second Battle of Ypres. Works preceding the Civil Rights Movement help expose the horrors of discrimination.


Works that do not fit contemporary mores and understandings still allow us insight into how we arrived where we are. Literature, of course, is a product of its time, and much can be learned about a specific era by studying the humor, books, films, and art/photographs of that period. With older books, study may be required to get the full benefit of what the author has to offer. Can we appreciate the ERA without first understanding the struggles women faced throughout the years? Can we value the LGBTQ movement without knowledge of past, pervasive discrimination? Can we understand the Black Lives Matter movement without understanding racism? And how can we, in the current millennium, understand fully these movements without some reflection on the past, reflection that may be gained in vital ways through literature?

So, no, I do not think literature is (generally) ever so outdated as to be unworthy of reading. And a good story and good writing have their own value, too (though in some instances, we must shake the wheat from the chaff). I will cling to my Zane Grey and my Longfellow and my Michener with the understanding that these are works of their respective eras and some themes and characters must be read with skepticism in our current time. (BTW, Grey really does have great style. . . .)