Well, I thought that I’d talk about some of the reasons to read slightly older books. This is mostly because, for most of my teenage years during the 2000s, I mostly read older and/or second-hand novels from the 1950s-1990s (in addition to the occasional 19th century/early 20th century novel or short story) and actually preferred them to modern books.
It also helped that, thanks to charity shops/second-hand bookshops, I was able to belatedly experience both the paperback horror boom of the 1980s and glimpse the golden age of sci-fi. These days, such books are unfortunately less common in these shops 😦
But, when I got back into reading regularly a year or so ago (after about 3-4 years of not reading much), I focused more on slightly more modern fiction. It was more readable, more fast-paced, more interesting in some ways etc… For a while, I actually preferred it to older fiction. But, every now and then, I’d find an interesting older novel or re-read one of the books I enjoyed when I was a teenager. And, since I’m doing this at the moment, I thought that I’d talk about some of the reasons to read older books.
1) They make you a better reader: When I started re-reading Clive Barker’s 1985 novel “The Damnation Game” a few days before writing this article, I was surprised at how formal and slow-paced the writing seemed to be. Then, I remembered reading this book for the first time when I was about nineteen or so. At the time, it had been just another ’80s horror novel – something I’d read for relaxation and enjoyment. I didn’t remember the writing being so elaborate or the pacing being so slow – it was just an “ordinary” older horror novel to me.
Of course, I read older books more frequently back then. So, I was more used to and well-practiced at reading this writing style. It was pretty much standard. I was, in short, a slightly better reader than I am today. Yes, some traces of this lingered in the vaguely formal writing style that I use for most of these blog articles ( I blame the many essays I wrote in school/college/university and discovering both Sherlock Holmes and H.P.Lovecraft at the age of seventeen for this. I actually find it easier/quicker to write non-fiction like this than to use a more informal style), but I was less used to this writing style than I was when I read older books more regularly.
Still, there are good reasons why modern books often use a more streamlined and fast-paced style. Not only is it even more relaxing and fun to read, but it also allows modern books to compete with the distractions of the internet, smartphones and other such things. Even so, reading older books still makes you a better reader – it’s kind of like a workout for your brain or something like that. Not only that, if you get used to reading older books (with their slightly slower and more complex narration), then modern books will seem even more thrillingly fast-paced by comparison too.
2) They’re a really interesting type of history: Older books, by their very nature, are dated. Sometimes, this can be a bad thing (eg: dated attitudes etc..) but sometimes it can be a good thing. In short, older novels are one of the most intriguing types of history out there. Not only are they a completely immersive glimpse into the past, almost like a type of time travel, but they often present a more “realistic” version of the past than stylised modern historical films, pop culture nostalgia etc… do.
After all, these books were the “modern literature” of their day. They were new once. They were written about the “present day” in the way that modern novels are. And this provides a much more complex, interesting, nuanced and unvarnished glimpse into the past than you might expect. Sure, you can sort of do this with other mediums – for example, watching the first series of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and various Beatles music videos will give you a highly stylised glimpse of the general “atmosphere” of 1960s Britain – but, because books force you to use your imagination, they are a bit more vivid and immersive.
Not only that, there’s also something cool about experiencing exactly the same type of entertainment as people in the past used to enjoy too. And, unless you’re reading a modern reprint, it’s also interesting to think that the book you’re reading right now is exactly the same book that someone twenty, thirty etc… years ago also enjoyed too.
3) They can surprise you: Although books are one of the oldest storytelling mediums out there, they can often be further ahead of their time than films, TV, videogames etc….
For example, Dashiell Hammett’s 1929/30 novel “The Maltese Falcon” feels much more “modern” than films of the time. Even Mickey Spillane’s 1947 novel “I, The Jury“, a pulp novel that has otherwise aged terribly, is written in a surprisingly fast-paced style that wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a modern thriller novel.
Then there’s the way that Shirley Jackson’s 1959 horror novel “The Haunting Of Hill House” includes humour, a group of “misfit” main characters etc… in a way that is at least vaguely reminiscent of modern horror films.
Then, there is science fiction. Whether it is the way that Neal Stephenson’s 1992 cyberpunk novel “Snow Crash” reminded me a lot of mid-late 1990s sci-fi films like “Ghost In The Shell” or “The Matrix”, the way that William Gibson’s 1996 cyberpunk novel “Idoru” almost seems to be a novel about the modern internet or even how Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” is a satire of the 1960s that was written in the 1930s, it is absolutely amazing when you find an old novel that is eerily ahead of it’s time 🙂
4) You don’t have to read “classics”: One of the most off-putting things about older books is the whole idea of “classics”. You know, the boring old novels that you were forced to read when you were in school. Most older novels aren’t like this!
Seriously, reading older novels doesn’t mean having to trudge through “the classics”. Yes, some 19th and 20th century “classics” are actually really good books (and are well worth reading for fun), but one of the cool things about old books is that there are so many of them – most of which end up being forgotten. In other words, you can find some absolutely brilliant hidden gems if you are willing to look.
Of course, this was a lot easier a decade or two ago, when lots of mid-late 20th century literature was easily available in charity shops and second-hand shops. Yes, finding and buying books is ten times quicker and easier using the internet, but it lacks what made shopping for older books in the 2000s so interesting – serendipity. The fact that you don’t know in advance what old books will be on a shop shelf and end up accidentally discovering all sorts of great authors, amazing novels etc… because of this.
I mean, my interest in 1980s horror fiction (which reignited my love of reading when I was a teenager) was sparked because I happened to find an old Shaun Hutson novel on a market stall when I was about thirteen. I hadn’t expected to find it there, but I did. So, yes, finding hidden gems was a lot easier a decade or two ago than it is now, but there are a lot of hidden gems out there if you read older fiction.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂