Based on the content posted at various litblogs, I’ve concluded that many readers devote their time and energy almost exclusively to recently published books. This seems peculiar because while I loyally track certain contemporary writers – Cynthia Ozick, Philip Roth, Greil Marcus – and read their work as soon as it’s published, and while I review new books for newspapers and thus get paid to do so, I tend to assume that most are a waste of time. In addition, the past is a much bigger place than the present, so it follows that most worthwhile books were published not last week but some time in the previous three millennia. Every minute devoted to reading the new and middling is a minute spent languishing away from the old and dependably superior.
I sound like what is known in jazz circles as a “moldy fig,” but I’m making no claims for the superiority of some mythical Golden Age of writing or publishing. Most of what came off the presses in 1906 or 1806 was rubbish, too. In fact, my observations are nothing new, and I cite as authority the 1825 essay “On Reading New Books,” from Vol. XVII of The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, published in 1933 by J.M. Dent and Sons. Clearly, little has changed in almost 200 years. Hazlitt in his first sentence describes reading new books as a “rage” he cannot comprehend:
“If the public has read all those that have gone before, I can conceive how they should not wish to read the same work twice over; but when I consider the countless volumes that lie unopened, unregarded, unread, and unthought-of, I cannot enter into the pathetic complaints that I hear made, that Sir Walter Scott writes no more – that the press is idle – that Lord Byron is dead. If I have not read a book before, it is, to all intents and purposes, new to me, whether it was printed yesterday or three hundred years ago. If it be urged that it has no modern, passing incidents, and is out of date and old-fashioned, then it is so much the newer; it is farther removed from other works that I have lately read, from the familiar routine of ordinary life, and makes so much more addition to my knowledge.”
In effect, Hazlitt is arguing that an old, unread book is newer than a new book one has already read. Part of literature’s value is the way it demands that we project ourselves out of the familiar and comfortable into the alien, that we willingly assume another’s point of view. This challenges our natural tendency to remain self-centered and coddle our assumptions. One potential blessing of reading broadly and empathetically in the past is to undermine the privileged status of our cozy, imperious, present selves.
I remember a college English professor, a specialist in the 18th century, complaining that most of her students had read almost nothing published earlier than Hemingway. In fact, Hemingway and the pared-down style he pioneered marked a demarcation beyond which her students could not and would not willingly venture. An elaborate, pre-modernist prose – not to speak of Chaucer or Shakespeare – was almost literally a foreign language. This was 35 years ago, and presumably we would have to bump up the new outer limit of literacy to – what? Salinger? Toni Morrison? Rick Moody?
Hazlitt published a companion essay, “On Reading Old Books,” which begins like this: “I hate to read new books. There are twenty or thirty volumes that I have read over and over again, and these are the only ones that I have any desire ever to read at all.” I think the great, aging essayist is playing the reactionary for the sake of provoking knee-jerk partisans of the new. In the same essay, however, he makes a sad admission:
“Books have in great measure lost their power over me; nor can I revive the same interest in them as formerly. I perceive when a thing is good, rather than feel it.”
I’m grateful for having never reached such an extreme of literary demoralization, a state comparable to losing all loved ones, family and friends, and being alone without hope of solace or pleasure. There’s always another book to read, old or new.