“I find the annual celebration of contemporary writing, the Xmas lists of 2019 books, quite offensive,” said Lucy Ellmann, author of the prize-winning Ducks, Newburyport, in a recent interview. “It seems so arrogant. These lists suggest that the most relevant books must be the ones most recently published. That’s daft.”
In fact, Ellmann takes things to the extreme and says she only reads books before World War II:
Some time ago I pretty much decided to read only books written before the atom bomb was dropped, when everything changed for all life on Earth. The industrial revolution’s bad enough, but nuclear weapons really are party-poopers.
I don’t stick strictly to this policy, but I often find it more rewarding to read what people thought about, and what they did with literature, before we were reduced by war and capitalism to mere monetary units, bomb fodder and password generators. And before the natural world became a depository for plastics and nuclear waste.
Anger and alienation have resulted, and they’re fine subjects, but there are times when you’d like to remember some of the higher points in the history of civilisation as well, and the natural world before we learned to view it all as tainted. The intense humour, innocence, sexiness and play of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, for instance – could this have been written after Hiroshima? Could Gargantua and Pantagruel? Don Quixote? Emma? I don’t see how. Thanks to the offences of patriarchy, a lot of the fun has gone out of being human, and I like books that look at life in less constricted ways.
This idea of stealing from the deep past is one of my favorites, but Lydia Davis is a bit less extreme in her reading advice (from Essays):
How should you read? What should the diet of your reading be? Read the best writers from all different periods; keep your reading of contemporaries in proportion—you do not want a steady diet of contemporary literature. You already belong to your time.
I was disappointed to discover this year when putting together my year-end book list that the only two books I read published before WWII were Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio (1883) and the Japanese Ghost Stories of Lafcadio Hearn, who died in 1901. (Thoreau’s journals end in the year 1861, but it feels like cheating to include them, since I read pretty much read them on a loop.)
I’ve threatened for years to read nothing but books 150 years old or older, but, like other reading restrictions, it goes against my “Read at whim!” beliefs. Still, I want to spend a little more time in the past next year.
In case you’d like to beef up your own reading list, here’s a list of old stuff recommended to me from Twitter followers a few years back:
Related reading: Steal old stuff.