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When Reviewing Older Books

A photograph of a copy of Far From The Madding Crowd, a book that's definitely old

Something’s been on my mind recently. It works itself up the more I review and whilst I’ve no firms plans to change my style – though it happens naturally over time – I’d like to discuss it with you and get my thoughts down on digital paper.

It can be summed up as ‘do I review this older book with thoughts as to its past context or do I review it in my modern context?’ When I say this and speak of past context I’m meaning both social context and the specific views reviewers had at that time. And I’m saying all this because I already look at social context. (The book I reckon started this whole thing off was The Awakening, a book ahead of its time that was panned by critics in its day but is lauded by us now.)

I think that to review a book with its own context in mind is interesting but you’d have to be careful because there wouldn’t be anything new to say. You’d be talking in hindsight unless you created a hybrid, a comparison of thoughts. You’d also have to do a lot of research every time, more so than usual.

Now this is kind of in line with newspaper reviewing. Here’s a confession: I don’t find newspaper reviews to be so much reviews as they are general articles related to particular books. They tend to go off subject, talk of the author’s life instead of the book – in cases such as Irène Némirovsky it’s relevant; often it’s not – and I’ve always found it to be more of a lesson and a bit of a showing off of knowledge rather than something that tells you whether or not you might like the book itself. It doesn’t happen all the time but certainly there are many occasions wherein I’ll finish reading the review and be none the wiser as to what the person thought of the book. For all the assertions that ‘I didn’t like it’ or ‘I liked it’ aren’t helpful by themselves, they are more helpful than something that doesn’t say anything.

And with that potentially monstrous admission, I’ll move on.

Reviewing in one’s own modern, present, context, is where you’ll find new thoughts. It’s where a book still has more to say, to pinch the thoughts from a previous post. You’re talking about the book in the context of what you know and whilst this wouldn’t score much in an academic environment, it’s surely much more useful to the person who is looking to find out whether they’d like the book themselves; whether their ancestors might have liked it is irrelevant.

But then you can’t apply modern contexts to older thinking, you can’t say that any book, written in the Victorian period, for example, that uses the word ‘cripple’, is awful because it uses a word we’ve since blacklisted, instead you must speak of how the Victorians treated disability or, indeed, state that in such and such a book’s case the author is using ‘cripple’ as we use the word ‘table’ – the bog standard word at the time. Thinking was different back then.

Then there is the question of not-so-old books – how do you review books that have been published in your lifetime, a decade or more before, particularly when it’s been long enough that the world has changed? I recently reviewed Mavis Cheek’s Dog Days and it seemed very outdated – it was written in the 1990s! (I’m also thinking of Susanna Kearsley’s Mariana – a book in which a person smokes in a pub in England. This doesn’t happen any more – there’s been a smoking ban for some time now – and I’d almost forgotten smoking in pubs was once a thing, enough that I was wondering why no one was telling the character to put it out. The smoking made the book seem a lot older than it was yet I can remember the day the ban began, what I was doing, the clothes I was wearing, the building we’d come across that turned out to be full of asbestos…) It sounds mad to me, but I had to really think about what I wanted to say in my review of Cheek’s book, in my review of Kearsley’s book. My review of the Kearsley will be shorter than usual, though I could relate to the book, time-slipping aside (I wish I could relate to that!). My thought process: should I mention the lack of computers making the rural setting even more romantic?… I doubt anyone said such a thing when the book was released in 1994, because whilst there were plenty of computers around there wasn’t much Internet and it was still more of a hobby than an essential part of life…

Ultimately I did mention the lack of technology because we can’t go backwards and everyone in future will likely be drawn in part to the book’s nostalgic feel… which of course they wouldn’t have been at the time. Had I read the book in 1994 my review would have been very different. And likely full of spelling errors. I think 22 years in the past is long enough ago to create comparisons, especially considering leaps in science.

How many years could you apply this ‘in your lifetime’ thinking to? I think in this present era not so many. The world is moving too fast. Young adults don’t know what life was like before the Internet. But there’s some leeway there – it’s a question of intuition.

Have I gone off subject? I think so; I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, but the most important thing to me was to get your opinion:

What do you think about older books and reviews and context and time moving on?


booker talk

June 15, 2016, 2:22 pm

Tough question. Im tempted to say I think you should look at the book first in the context in which it was written. What view of life is the author presenting of their era (or it may be an earlier period). As you say critical interpretations do change and cast new light but I view a lot of those with a great deal of scepticism because they often feel that the critic is trying to make their interpretation fit their view of life rather than what the original author’s view was. Post colonial criticism to me is very guilty here.


June 16, 2016, 2:46 pm

I always review books based on their current context. That means I often end up saying things feel dated, or that it was probably ground breaking when published, but since x, y and z have been published this no longer has its power. I think as long as you explain what you’re doing it doesn’t really matter!

Jenny @ Reading the End

June 19, 2016, 1:34 pm

It’s tough to know how to deal with the context of an older book. I try not to condemn things that the author couldn’t have known, but be upfront about their prejudices and biases. Which isn’t so much about condemning them for being a product of their times, as it is preparing the readers to know what to expect.


June 19, 2016, 7:59 pm

I try and give a balanced view of both the thinking at the time and my modern thought. So, for example anything by H. Rider Haggard, I’ll want to explain the thinking of the time, but also address that his books are totally racist. But, then I do believe you can judge older times by modern standards, I’m not good with the ‘they didn’t know better’ argument.

I think when it comes to more modern books, like you mentioned where technology is different, the best books seem to transcend that lack of. If that makes sense? So it doesn’t bother me there are no phones or computers, so I may not mention it, but I think it’s an excellent idea – as you have exampled – to explain how a lack of tech nay have enabled a better story.

Laurie @ Relevant Obscurity

June 22, 2016, 1:53 am

I mostly read classic literature, so it’s already old and outdated!

But I read these 19th and early 20th books like primary source documents to find what they say about the times in terms of their social, cultural, political personal, and so on, context. I don’t think of myself as writing reviews. I don’t call my posts reviews. I don’t do summaries (I link to wiki or Amazon for that). I don’t discuss the book’s place in literary history, although I think that is important and I like to read books and articles about that, but I don’t like to write that way.

My posts are my reactions to various issues, or characters or historical mentions, things I find odd or interesting in the narrative, like descriptions of food, dress, interactions between classes of people. Because this is why I read classic literature in the first place.


July 15, 2016, 2:00 pm

Booker Talk: What view of life they are presenting – that is a very good point. I like what you say about fitting the critic’s life, too, because I think that can be either intentionally or very much not intentional, but will always happen to some extent, the whole each person who reads the book will view it differently by virtue of individuality thing.

Jackie: Indeed, as long as it’s explained, or obvious, that’s the important thing, and as I said, we can’t go backwards, so saying something’s dated if it is is always going to be true. It’s something that will never change unless there’s some sort of time travel or something!

Jenny: That’s a good way of going about it, I reckon. You’re doing both – older context and newer context, and blending it together well so that the two relate to each other.

Alice: Yes, so you’ve given space to the author in their context but then told readers today what they’ll likely want to know that might not necessarily be revealed in a synopsis.

Yes, that makes sense. Technology without any definite time.

Laurie: I love that, reading them as primary sources. You putting that into words, it’s true, they are primary sources, some secondary I suppose. I like that you have a specific mode, your reactions to various elements of the books; I’m always learning from your posts and I think I see now exactly why :)



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