Old and new books

I was intrigued by Patrick Kurp’s post on the value of reading old books as opposed to new ones — old meaning published many years ago, not old as in used. He says, “the past is a much bigger place than the present, so it follows that most worthwhile books were published not last week but some time in the previous three millennia. Every minute devoted to reading the new and middling is a minute spent languishing away from the old and dependably superior.” This makes sense to me in a way. Almost everything we read that’s recently published won’t last; it will be forgotten, and there’s no knowing which very few books are the exceptions. I was interested to read in Virginia Woolf’s diary about the books she reviewed, and I noticed that many of them I hadn’t heard of before. The books we are debating about today, people won’t have heard of 100 years from now. The things we read from the past are by definition the stuff that has lasted, and perhaps that means they’re superior to today’s books.

Patrick also argues, following William Hazlitt, that it’s the older books that are really new: they can show us a world different from the one we inhabit. Older books can shake us up a bit, show us new things, get us out of the familiar and make us encounter the alien. I like that idea too. I look for the new and unfamiliar in my reading, often.

And yet, I wonder. Why do we read? Is it for edification and instruction, or for comfort and pleasure? Okay, it can be both, sometimes both at once, sometimes in separate reading experiences, depending on one’s mood.

But here’s what I really wonder: does it matter why we read? I kind of buy the argument that reading older books can be an encounter with the new and can help us break out of our private comfortable worlds as Patrick argues. But does it have to be older books that do this? Can’t we have that experience with new books, if that experience is what we are looking for, ones that show us worlds different from the ones we know?

And when it comes to the argument that older books are the ones that have lasted and new books probably won’t, and that therefore reading older books is more worthwhile, I begin to wonder what we mean by “worthwhile.” What do we seek to get out of reading? I guess this kind of argument presumes that we should be reading for self-edification, for self-improvement, that reading should be a learning experience.

I’ve often thought that myself. I’ve read a whole lot of older books because I wanted to be a better person. I wanted to be well-read and well-educated, and knowledgeable and open-minded. But sometimes I wonder what the point of all that is. Does every minute we spend have to be spent in a worthwhile manner?

Maybe after all pleasure and not edification is a better goal. A part of me shudders to say that — forget being a better person, just enjoy yourself! I’ve spent most of my life thinking I needed to be a better person and that every minute should be devoted to it. Ultimately, I wouldn’t be able to shake that way of thinking, even if I decided I really wanted to. But I do sometimes think I might be better off if I decided that not a whole lot matters but enjoyment of the present moment, and in that case I’ll read what I damn well please, old or new.

I guess ultimately I think that if everyone decided that not a whole lot matters but enjoyment of the present moment, the world would be a messed-up place (oh, wait … the world IS a messed up place …), but I also think that people like me who are driven fairly mercilessly to spend every moment of time wisely might be better off seeking pleasure more often.

And so I’m having a bit of a bad reaction to the idea that my reading should be worthwhile. Would it hurt me much if my reading were more escapist?

Hmmm … I’m off to read Proust. Make of that what you will.

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