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Dated Books And Cranford

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“Have you seen any numbers of ‘The Pickwick Papers’?” said he. (They were then publishing in parts.) “Capital thing!”

I paused at the above. The kowtowing, or, at the very least, nod, to Dickens is obvious – Cranford was published first as a serial in Household Words, a magazine Dickens edited – but what struck me first and foremost was the use of current culture.

Discussed often and especially right now in these times of rapidly changing technology is whether or not including references to specific tech, items and so on, will date a book enough to make it irrelevant in a few short years. Chick-lit, for example, often refers to current culture and whole books are written in emails and tweets. (In this case we can at least say email’s been around for years, has simple taken over the letter. Twitter on the other hand is a new concept entirely and already appears to have peaked.)

Broad references and references to things that have or had been around for ages do of course date a book but more in the sense that they inform you of the era, help you set the time and location in your mind. A reference to Kanye West’s spoiling of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech will likely mean nothing within a dozen or so years. One reference or two might be okay but a book that’s packed with today’s news will likely be put aside tomorrow.

This whole mode of thinking is different when it comes to classics. Why is that? We could suggest that Gaskell had a crystal ball and ‘knew’ Dickens’ work would last but apart from a general sense that he wrote good books, Gaskell could only guess in the same way that we can only guess Michael Jackson’s music, Suzanne Collins’ books, will survive our era. In Gaskell’s case the usage is to do with her acquaintance with Dickens, an inside joke, and Dickens understandably left it in there. But why do we take no note of it, is it that we just enjoy the literary pleasure of this reference of one now famous person to another?

In Gaskell’s case here it doesn’t matter because The Pickwick Papers is famous – if we consider that Gaskell is more likely to be read after Dickens, after those who are more famous, then this reference is one of those long-lasting references that aren’t really dated because they’re still a part of our culture today. But how many references do we miss because they aren’t part of our culture? A lot, surely, because some we may not even think to look up – think of all the times you’ve missed the context of song lyrics until later because you didn’t know there was context to know about. Part of the exercise in reading classic literature is researching things that would’ve been known at the time of writing that have since been forgotten. Our discussions about dating books are moot when the classics are brought in.

Do you think dating an exclusively 21st Century idea? Do you think there’s an undefined cut off between the time dating wasn’t an issue and the time it was? Does worrying about missed contexts affect your reading?



February 24, 2016, 6:11 pm

I this a great post! I am fascinated by references to other books when I am reading a classic. Sometimes I am familiar with the book mentioned, sometimes not. But it is almost like an inside connection between me and the author that brings the work close to me. I imagine that I miss a lot of these references, though, and maybe it would add another level to my already enjoyable reading experience.

As an aside, I read a lot of books written by tourists to California in the 19th century, and a book continually mentioned in their books is Richard Henry Dana’s, Two Years Before the Mast. It helps me to realize the impact that book had on people, which I find so interesting.

Alex (Sleepless Reader)

February 25, 2016, 9:44 am

it is jarring when recent books (lest say in the last 20 years) reference old technology, but when it’s in older books, like Gaskell, the Brontes, the Russian classics, I find it fascinating and it makes them more… realistic. I love looking up obscure references.

Jenny @ Reading the End

February 25, 2016, 8:38 pm

I think I’m mostly not fussed about missing cultural references. I read so much as a kid and missed references ALL THE TIME (just because of being a kid and not knowing that much stuff), so I guess it got me in the habit of not minding so much? And if I do mind, I can always look it up, and then you learn something new!

All of which to say, I wouldn’t mind if novels these days made more use of modern-day technology. :p


March 1, 2016, 11:13 am

Laurie: Thank you! (I really wasn’t sure about it so that’s good to hear.) There’s something awesome about it, isn’t there? ‘Brings the work close to me’ – great point. You’re right, there’s that feeling that you’re even more involved suddenly, that it’s more relevant to you now. Sometimes it can make the difference between feeling engaged in the work and not so much. Interesting specifics to your reading! There’s a lot to study there (which may be your reason?)

Alex: It’s interesting, isn’t it? This difference. 20 years is definitely at the tail end of it, actually I’d venture to say if it were 20 years that’s not so bad. Yes to the realism, you’re right there. It grounds you in the era better than any regular description and what’s fascinating is that all the author was doing was talking about their world, likely not thinking about adding extra period context for later readers, but it works so well.

Jenny: That’s kind of good to not have that worry. Certainly it must make reading easier to just get done. True, especially nowadays, Wikipedia’s never far away. A fair opinion, and a good one, really, because if a lot of people are saying ‘no’ then we do need people saying ‘yes’ so those books that use it don’t get forgotten so soon.



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