Well, although one of the things I’ve discovered since I got back into reading regularly a year or two ago is that modern novels are better than I’d expected, I thought that I’d talk about some of the reasons to read older novels today.
This is mostly because this was what really got me interested in reading during my teenage years in the 2000s was finding lots of older novels in second-hand bookshops and charity shops. Whether it was the gruesome 1980s horror novels, the 1940s-1980s dystopian novels and the “edgy” 1960s-90s literary novels that first showed me that books could be cool, the 1950s/60s science fiction I enjoyed in my mid-late teens or even a phase I went through when I was about seventeen where I read lots of Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft, I read quite a few older novels back then.
But, having read much more of a mixture of older and modern novels over the past year or two, I can compare the two in a bit more detail than I could when I was younger. And, yes, although modern novels do have some advantages over older ones, I thought that I’d look at some of the good things about slightly older novels.
1) Complexity, atmosphere and detail: Books are the literal opposite to computer games in this regard. If you want a computer game with ultra-realistic HD graphics and lots of detail, then you choose the most modern one you can find – and just hope that your machine meets the sky-high system requirements. But, if you want the literary equivalent of this, then it is usually worth reading an older book. You’ll need to be a slightly more experienced or skilled reader, but it is well worth it if you are.
Modern novels are often written in an efficient and readable way that is designed to grab the reader’s attention and to compete with the distractions of the internet, smartphones, boxsets etc… This isn’t an entirely bad thing, but it means that they can often have slightly less linguistic or descriptive detail than older novels do. They often have shorter sentences, slightly simpler vocabulary, more informal narration etc…
On the other hand, even “low brow” horror and thriller novels from the 1970s-90s will often use more sophisticated/formal vocabulary, sentence structures etc… than you might expect. People had less distractions back then and they read more books, so there was more of an incentive for writers to show off a bit more and to really use the written word to its fullest extent.
Yes, this means that older novels can be a little slower to read and that you might have to work out the meaning of some unfamiliar words from their context (or just look them up online). But, not only does this result in a much richer and more “high definiton” story (with more atmosphere, precision, depth, character etc…), but it will also help you to expand your vocabulary, increase your attention span and help you become more adept at reading complex texts.
2) Cost and serendipity: Yes, some older books (even relatively recent ones) can go out of print and become ridiculously expensive. However, this isn’t the case with most older books. If you are looking to build a personal library on a budget, then many paperback novels from even just a few years ago can be found incredibly cheaply second-hand. Likewise, if you want to go back even further, then many out-of-copyright 19th century/early 20th century novels can often be found in inexpensive “classics” editions or as free e-books.
[Edit: The original draft of this article, prepared several months ago, included a passage about finding interesting random books in second-hand bookshops. But, given current events, visiting physical shops isn’t something that I can recommend at the moment.]
So, being willing to read older novels can broaden your horizons, surprise you and allow you to build up a “to read” pile at a fraction of the cost.
3) Time travel: I’ve mentioned this in previous articles, but it’s worth repeating. Another cool thing about older novels is that they allow you to directly step into the past in a way that things like modern historical fiction, historical dramas etc… won’t allow you to do. After all, when you read an older novel, you are not only reading something written in the past but you are also reading exactly the same thing that people in the past read for entertainment. In other words, your experience of reading an older novel will be at least slightly similar to that of someone from the time it was published.
Although this will sometimes show you how backwards and narrow-minded the past can be, it’ll also help you to see the past in a more “realistic” way too. And the past can often seem more “modern” than the stylised nostalgia or re-creations that you’ll see in the media these days might lead you to believe. Older novels weren’t written with the thought “in 20-50 years time, people will think this is retro“, they were written to entertain people at the time they were written. So, they will depict everything and everyone in a more “realistic” way than you might expect if you’ve only seen modern TV shows, movies etc… set in the past.
This is kind of hard to describe well, but it not only gives you a more accurate look at (and understanding of) the past but – thanks to the immersive nature of books – it can feel like you are actually travelling back in time too. It’s really cool 🙂
4) Books mattered more: One of the cool things about older books is that books used to matter to everyone more in the past than they do today. They were read more, they were respected more and they were more popular. Not only does this mean that older books will usually be edited/proof-read to a higher standard, but it also means that they have a level of intensity and gravitas that you don’t always find in more modern novels.
People read more in the past than they do now, and older books will often reflect the fact that books mattered more. They weren’t some obscure hobby or trendy “sophisticated” activity – they were ordinary everyday entertainment. Which, of course, is still the best way to read and view books.
For good example of how books mattered more in the past, look at articles about the reactions to the Armed Service Edition novels that were issued to US troops during WW2, look at the sheer level of importance the Lady Chatterley Trial had in 1960s Britain (because book censorship affected a lot more readers back then) or look at how 19th century readers reacted when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle “killed” Sherlock Holmes. Books mattered to people more in the past.
And you can often see this in older books. Whether it is 1980s British horror novels that tried to out-shock each other because horror fans read them as an alternative to the heavily-censored films in cinemas at the time. Whether it is how 1970s-90s literary novels will sometimes try to be a bit edgier or more controversial, because people read and discussed books more (and books were respected enough that calling for book censorship was rightly seen as an evil or totalitarian thing to do). Whether it is how older dystopian novels will almost always use the dystopian setting as a way of making a point about something – rather than just as a dramatic backdrop – because they were writing for a much larger audience who thought about what they read etc…
Even the cover art is usually better in older books, because it had to be dramatic in order to stand out. Without the internet to help potential readers find books and because people could only buy physical books (to read in public, to leave lying around at home etc…), cover art had to be cooler and more artistic in the past – because it mattered more.
So, one cool thing about older novels is that they show you what books were like when everyone cared about them and read them a bit more.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂