Sunday, August 03, 2014

`Read an Old One'

A reader last week sent me a photograph of the front of a bookshop, the Addyman Annexe in Hay-on-Wye, the fabled “National Book Town of Wales” adjacent to the border with England. A banner hanging below the shop window carries a wise saying attributed to Samuel “Breakfast” Rogers (1763-1855): “When a new book is published, read an old one.” My reader rightly notes: “The sentiment expressed in the attached photo may appeal to you.” Another picture of the shop shows a comparably sagacious sentiment: “Kindles are banned from the Kingdom of Hay.” I’ve tried unsuccessfully to identify the source of the Rogers line (are you there, Dave?), though in Recollections of the Table-Talk of Samuel Rogers (ed. the Rev. Alexander Dyce, 1887) I found a sort of playful corollary: “A man who attempts to read all the new publications must often do as a flea does—skip.” 

The obsession with the new and fashionable is puzzling. The present is a small, provincial, generally backward place as compared to the past, which is vast, generous and filled with the promise of adventure. Who would choose to read Douglas Brinkley or Howard Zinn if Plutarch and Henry Adams are sitting handily on the shelf? Who would choose John Ashbery over Fulke Greville? Foucault over Pascal? Lacan over Burton? My hands are full keeping up with the past. Why fret over the self-consuming present? C.S. Lewis diagnosed the ailment as “this mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones,” and offered this practical advice: 

“It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should read at least one old one to every three new ones.” 

A contemporary of Rogers, William Hazlitt, now a certified author of old books, writes in the same spirit:  

“If you want to know what any of the authors were who lived before our time, and are still objects of anxious inquiry, you have only to look into their works. But the dust and smoke and noise of modern literature have nothing in common with the pure, silent air of immortality.”


D. G. Myers said...


Only thing anywhere close that I could find are these lines from Rogers’s “Epistle to a Friend”:

Selected shelves shall claim thy studious hours;
There shall thy ranging mind be fed on flowers!
There, while the shaded lamp's mild lustre streams,
Read antient books, or woo inspiring dreams;
And, when a sage's bust arrests thee there,
Pause, and his features with his thoughts compare.
—Ah, most that Art my grateful rapture calls,
Which breathes a soul into the silent walls;
Which gathers round the Wise of every Tongue,
All on whose words departed nations hung;
Still prompt to charm with many a converse sweet;
Guides in the world, companions in retreat!


Dave Lull said...

I wonder whether it was Samuel Rogers. It seems that Augustine Birrell, a biographer of William Hazlitt, in an early version of one of his essays, "Book Buying," wrote:

"When a new book is published, read an old one, was the advice of a sound though surly critic (Hazlitt).”

Stirling Newberry said...

Some books only seem old, the have a lifetime of living, even though they were published only yesterday.

Denkof Zwemmen said...

Like other followers of Anecdotal Evidence, I too tend to abjure new books in favor of old ones. But not without a niggling worry that perhaps there is an element of unconscious animus because none of them is by me.
When I do read a new book, usually on the recommendation of a friend, on infrequent occasions I actually find it better than second-rate.
Meaning to comment on the “new books” quote from Samuel Rogers (1763-1855), I looked to see what books were published from 1851 through 1854. The books published by British authors alone, excluding Americans (Moby Dick, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Scarlet Letter), include:
Gaskell’s Cranford
Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice
Arnold’s Dover Beach
Thackeray’s Henry Esmond & Pendennis
Dickens’ Bleak House & David Copperfield
Roget’s Thesaurus
Elizabeth Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese
Wordsworth’s The Prelude

But commenter David Lull’s citation from Hazlitt (1778-1830) seems more convincing. (It certainly sounds like something Hazlitt would have said.) Looking at British books published from 1826 through 1829, I could not find any with the staying power of the books mentioned above. (As to their quality, I can’t speak, having read none of them.)

Which would go to show that Hazlitt would have had more reason than Rogers to complain about new books; and that the quality of new books varies from era to era. Perhaps we would not be so dismissive of them if we did not live in one of literature’s lackluster ages.

marly youmans said...

" of literature's lackluster ages."

How on earth can we assess whether this is true? Have we plumbed the depths of our age? Has any one compassed the torrent of works pouring out of publishers (and self-publishers) these days? Such things are said, certainly, and certain it is that many wheels are rolling on the wrong tracks, and many voices are praising them for doing so. Is that all there is to our noisy time?

Denkof Zwemmen said...

You're right, Marly Youmans. We can't assess the historical worth (literary and otherwise) of our own time. We have to leave that up to the scholars of 2114. For all we know, self-published memoirs of unhappy and abused childhoods may be regarded as the great literary art form of our time, with vampire novels coming in second place.