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Are Older Books More Important Than Newer Ones?

A photograph of 6 books, some old, some new

Following on from my post on eternally playing catch up, reading Elizabeth Fremantle’s books, with their Tudor characters who are readers, got me thinking of the way it can be easy to apply importance to older books over newer ones. I’d say we do this partly because of the plethora of newer ones and the fact we can’t know for sure which will last the time. (I also wonder if it’s in some way also due to history – there weren’t so many new books. Or were there? The biggest thing Project Gutenberg has taught me so far is that there were a lot more books published in days gone by than you’d realise.)

It kind of puts it into perspective – the Tudors didn’t have any books by, say, Austen, to read so whilst we might ascribe importance to older books there’s a relative newness to many of these older books. And then, of course, where do we stop – if we’re looking at ever-loved works we need to be looking at Plato, Socrates, and no further… is Plato too new?

On some level, there is something to be said for only or mainly reading older books. I know that whilst I myself don’t think reading only older books is a good idea because you’d be missing a lot of present discussion, I nevertheless admire and understand someone who passes by contemporary novels.

Do I feel similarly if someone says they only read newer books? No – whilst I might not think them silly, I do think they’re missing out, and missing out a lot more than the person who is reading only older books misses out. I would say this feeling is ingrained – by school, by society, by the importance and general fame placed on older books – and whereas my feeling that it’s good to read newer books rather than just older books isn’t completely personal either, the idea of newer-books-only being a ‘problem’ is a lot stronger.

I suppose the whole lot of this is cultural. Could I ever write a post on this subject and it be based purely on my own uninfluenced thoughts?

I think I do deem older books more important in that there is a lot more conversation around them, and particularly because the conversation is ongoing. It’s not going to suddenly come to a halt unless perhaps our values change a lot, and even then nowadays we tend to simply start viewing the books in new ways, from different angles.

That said, is there a difference between famous older books and forgotten/merely average older books? The connection between both is that they inform us about the period in which they were written in, but how much relative value is there in a book that has been largely forgotten because it was just average fare? (If a book was forgotten because it served its purpose at the time – 12 Years A Slave, for example, which was written during the abolition – that’s a different ball game.)

Yet to dismiss new books would be to dismiss future classics, and to miss the conversations happening about issues we are having now. You can read a classic that talks about the industrial revolution and there will be much to discuss, but what of current political, social, cultural issues?

How do you balance old and new books?

 
 

Kelly

February 6, 2017, 5:59 pm

I read whatever strikes my fancy at the moment, though I know I read far more modern books than older ones. I tend to read a lot of historical fiction which can present itself in varied ways, depending upon the perspective and time from which it’s written. Sometimes newer might be better.

Booker talk

February 6, 2017, 6:03 pm

Interesting question. I never feel compelled to rush out and buy the latest new novel but neither do I want to restrict my reading to centuries-old books no matter how much I love nineteenth century fiction. Undoubtedly there are some gems from the past that we have missed but equally just because something is old, doesnt mean necessarily it is worth reading

JaneGS

February 6, 2017, 10:49 pm

Interesting post. I love to read classics, and I’m forever discovering authors that I come to love, so I tend to read mostly “old” books. However, I like to stay current and enjoy new authors/books also. I tend to rarely read something as soon as it’s published, unless it’s from an author I know and am confident will please me, and I do rely on reviews and word of mouth. Right now, I decided to try reading some of the books from 2016 that are in the Tournament of Books, 2017, so that is bring a lot of “new” books into my reading life right now.

Tracy Terry

February 7, 2017, 6:34 pm

Hmm, an interesting and thought provoking post.

At the moment I find myself reading lots of books by independent authors but having said that I’m also reading a fair amount of children’s classics.

Stefanie

February 7, 2017, 8:15 pm

I don’t think older books are more important than newer books. Older books do have the benefit of being tested by time but that doesn’t make them more important, a safer choice perhaps? I used to worry about reading classics and what not but these days I just read whatever I feel like reading. In the end I suppose it depends on what your reasons/goals for reading are that will swing your books of choice towards old or new or somewhere in between.

Laurie @ RelevantObscurity

February 12, 2017, 2:31 am

This is a good question for discussion, but I think the answers are pertinent to the individuals’ experience, taste and why they read.

I do read mostly classics, because I like being immersed in, especially, the 19th century/early 20th centuries. I am reading them for the first time, mostly, as my university education really steered me away from novels. So I am now making up for that.

I do believe, however, you have a good point about reading contemporary books for the value of understanding modern issues.

I thought to remedy my own lack of modern reading by promising myself to choose only books written in the last 5 years for one of the reading challenges I entered this year. How am I doing? My first book, written in 2016, was a historical novel set in the 19th century. I promise to try harder!

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