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In Defense of Old Books

Thomas Hardy

Photo Credit: guardian.co.uk

I have often wondered whether my opinion of the superiority of 19th century literature—and of significantly older literature in general—is in any way objectively justified, rather than simply finding its support in subjective notions of preference or bias. From the moment I began to regard the English language with an interest greater than that required by utility, I wondered at the great metamorphosis that has occurred in what is seemingly such a short period of time. (Being in no way a philologist, I do not know whether the evolution of English conforms to historical patterns and is therefore actually “short.”) Despite the acknowledgment that languages, being arbitrary conventions, must inevitably alter over time, I have still found it difficult to regard the differences between literary epochs as being merely that, and not evidence of some almost moral shift in the quality of what is considered good writing. Once having formed (and retained) a decided affinity for older works, I have since wondered self-critically whether this inclination is due to romantic notions of “the good ol’ days,” or whether it is actually possible for the general quality of literature to now be worse.

In being daily reminded of the chaotic state of the world, our tendency to subconsciously attribute real historical credence to fictitious renderings of past decades is, perhaps, a pardonable delusion; and where our perceptions of the past are accurate, we insist on downplaying the unique problems that afflicted older generations. In reading the works of the Brontë family, say, one might possibly be tempted to regard Victorian England in any number of charming lights, forgetting that all except the father died of illnesses before the age of 39—hardly a romantic state of affairs. Or, to take a more recent, personally incriminating, example: a soldier standing tediously in a Middle Eastern desert might naïvely claim to prefer to have been holed up in a nondescript cottage with the Greatest Generation in German-occupied France; this on account of having seen too many films and having thought only shallowly about what such an experience might have really been like. It is rarely true that the grass actually is greener on the inaccessible plot.

Yet whereas bygone times can be idealized by either the select apprehension or ignorance of certain facts, works of literature may be evaluated solely on their internal merits. Though it would clearly be remiss to think all 19th century works artistic masterpieces, or even good—the “penny dreadfuls” were the 19th century equivalent of popular contemporary literary abominations, such as 50 Shades of Grey—it would seem fair to compare the most (or least) esteemed works of the period to those of our own.

But in order to have any sort of objective degeneration, there must be some fixed standard or criteria against which to uniformly criticize various works. This standard, whatever its properties, is at bottom called the English Language; though when it comes to art, this standard is clearly more complex than the sum of its lingual parts. The difficulty in attempting to conduct such a thing as literary criticism, as with art criticism, is not only that English speakers have very different ideas about what constitutes good or acceptable English (these discrepancies occur even in the highest echelons of the discipline), but that the language itself is malleable and sometimes vague, with a wide margin for style. The English language as it now exists is stylistically unrecognizable from that of the Elizabethans, for example, even less so than Old English, but it is English nonetheless. The contemporary authorities on the subject would be at odds with their long-dead counterparts.

The slightly philosophical question that here presents itself is whether it is objectively possible to compare the linguistics and style of two works from two significantly different literary periods with regard to hierarchical value. This would seem to involve the question of discerning at what point a difference in style becomes evidence of either a greater or lesser ability to communicate. Authors have multifarious intentions, of course, but the question is at what point one author can be said to be definitively better or worse or more artful than another in communicating his intended message.

We might take an example: Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. I do not intend to conduct a thorough analysis and comparison (even if I could) either of this or any other work, but a cursory glance will suffice:

“The night had a sinister aspect. A heated breeze from the south slowly fanned the summits of lofty objects, and in the sky dashes of buoyant cloud were sailing in a course at right angles to that of another stratum, neither of them in the direction of the breeze below. The moon, as seen through these films, had a lurid metallic look. The fields were sallow with the impure light, and all were tinged in monochrome, as if beheld through stained glass. The same evening the sheep had trailed homeward head to tail, the behaviour of the rooks had been confused, and the horses had moved with timidity and caution.” (Thomas Hardy, Far From the Madding Crowd, Wordsworth Editions: Ware, Hertfordshire, 1993, p. 189)

Compare with Earnest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea:

“They walked up the road together to the old man’s shack and went in through its open door. The old man leaned the mast with its wrapped sail against the wall and the boy put the box and the other gear beside it. The mast was nearly as long as the one room of the shack. The shack was made of the tough budshields of the royal palm which are called guano and in it there was a bed, a table, one chair, and a place on the dirt floor to cook with charcoal. On the brown walls of the flattened, overlapping leaves of the sturdy fibered guano there was a picture in color of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and another of the Virgin of Cobre. These were relics of his wife. Once there had been a tinted photograph of his wife on the wall but he had taken it down because it made him too lonely to see it and it was on the shelf in the corner under his clean shirt.” (The Old Man and the Sea, p. 4)

I admit to the selection of these passages as being arbitrary, but they are nevertheless characteristic of each respective author and therefore sufficient to make my point. In reading these two passages, it seems to me quite nearly an objective fact that Hardy’s descriptions possess an artfulness lacking in those of Hemmingway, which by comparison appear bland and staccato, devoid of an alluring prosaic rhythm. Whatever Hemmingway’s merits, they do not in my mind compete for dominance in the category of eloquence.

That many people deliberately prefer books that adopt a style akin to Hemmingway’s, perhaps finding them less tiresome to read than the elaborate verbiage characteristic of many 19th century works, say, is a fact reaffirmed by the kinds of literature given the highest praise in contemporary literary circles. At the risk of sounding snobbish, I have routinely found it difficult to read the works contained in certain literary periodicals (Ploughshares, Writer’s Digest, The Sun), as well as some contemporary novels, without undergoing a slight cringe. Nevermind the fact that a popular theme in many of these works is either gratuitous sexuality in one form or another, or some form of implicit nihilism, it is the way in which the content is generally either dully presented or, in attempting to be artful, creates instead the impression of one over-acting a scene. Take a highly typical excerpt from a work of fiction in the July 2013 issue of The Sun magazine:

It was my junior year of high school, and I was living in a Victorian on Beach Avenue with my sister, Alex, who is my twin but always somehow prettier and skinnier than me, and our grandmother, Zilpha. The house was old and handsome, like our grandmother, and it sat surrounded by perennial gardens on a grassy hill above the south shore of Lake Ontario in Rochester, New York.

My parents had been killed in a car accident when I was in seventh grade. They were driving home from a wine tasting in Buffalo and got caught in a sudden snowstorm that swept off Lake Erie, and their car skidded off the road and hit a tree. My boyfriend Rick’s father had died of cancer of the throat, and I think one reason Rick loved me was because my parents were dead. He and his mother lived on my grandmother’s street, which is how we met. As residents we had access to a private beach, where Alex and I liked to swim and sunbathe in the summer, and where Rick and I liked to screw around late at night when the moon was out and the water smelled sweet and clean and the Big Dipper hung low above the lake, way out over Canada.” (Christian Zwahlen, “It Must Have Been Beautiful, But Now It’s Gone,” The Sun, issue 451, July 2013, http://thesunmagazine.org/issues/451/it_must_have_been_beautiful_but_now_its_gone)

Even without a drawing a comparison to another work, the above excerpt is at best only grammatically correct, having the sort of matter-of-fact descriptions one would expect of someone filing a police report. Curiously—but not, to my mind, surprisingly—the preceding excerpt is not altogether beneath the previous excerpt of Hemmingway. This is the lamentable reality: with regard to prosaic style (not content), there is often only a subtly discernible gap in quality (if at all) between lay writers and those highly esteemed. This exemplifies the vast difference in current literary trends and in what is now considered writing worthy of publication. I grant that it is rather unfair to compare a famous work of old to an unknown piece by a contemporary author, so let us approach the issue from a fairer angle—by looking at a passage from George R. R. Martin’s famous series, A Song of Ice and Fire (1):

“The morning had dawned clear and cold, with a crispness that hinted at the end of summer. They set forth at daybreak to see a man beheaded, twenty in all, and Bran rode among them, nervous with excitement. This was the first time he had been deemed old enough to go with his lord father and his brothers to see the king’s justice done. It was the ninth year of summer, and the seventh of Bran’s life.

The man had been taken outside a small holdfast in the hills. Robb thought he was a wildling, his sword sworn to Mance Rayder, the King beyond-the-Wall. It made Bran’s skin prickle to think of it. He remembered the hearth tales Old Nan told them. The wildlings were cruel men, she said, slavers and slayers and thieves. They consorted with giants and ghouls, stole girl children in the dead of night, and drank blood from polished horns. And their women lay with the Others in the Long Night to sire terrible half-human children.

But the man they found bound hand and foot to the holdfast wall awaiting the king’s justice was old and scrawny, not much taller than Robb. He had lost both ears and a finger to frostbite, and he dressed all in black, the same as a brother of the Night’s Watch, except that his furs were ragged and greasy.” (George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire: A Game of Thrones, p. 11)

This passage, while certainly not poorly written, and much better than Mr. Zwahlen’s, is rather uninteresting in its depictions. The story is fascinating, highly complex, and full of an engrossing intensity, but there is something un-compelling in the way in which Martin sets his scenes and develops his characters. I have begun reading this book on three separate occasions, making it several hundred pages deep, and each time finding the prose too uninspiring to be worth my time; though I may eventually return to it on account of the story. If only Thomas Hardy had contrived to write the story of the Starks and Lannisters…

Now take this excerpt from one of my favorite novels, Jane Eyre:

“From my discourse with Mr. Lloyd, and from the above reported conference between Bessie and Abbot, I gathered enough of hope to suffice as a motive for wishing to get well: a change seemed near,—I desired and waited it in silence. It tarried, however: days and weeks passed: I had regained my normal state of health but no new allusion was made to the subject over which I brooded. Mrs. Reed surveyed me at times with a severe eye, but seldom addressed me: since my illness, she had drawn a more marked line of separation than ever between me and her own children; appointing me a small closet to sleep in by myself, condemning me to take my meals alone, and pass all my time in the nursery, while my cousins were constantly in the drawing-room. Not a hint, however, did she drop about sending me to school: still I felt an instinctive certainty that she would not long endure me under the same roof with her; for her glance, now more than ever, when turned on me, expressed an insuperable and rooted aversion.” (Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, Chapter IV, p. 41.)

The subjects of these respective passages are irrelevant; the latter is superior to the preceding two in its command of the English language and the artistry with which it communicates information about the characters to the reader. Even if one detests the subject of the story, or wishes, as one friend recently said to me of Charlotte Brontë’s characters, to “throw them all into a pit of snakes,” a person with any regard for good diction cannot but appreciate it. One may enjoy a work of literature, but fail to appreciate it. Likewise, one may thoroughly appreciate a work, hating its subject or philosophy or author all the while.

In what I regard to be tantamount to literary blasphemy, Kurt Vonnegut famously espoused a sentiment that many other existing authors have either consciously or unconsciously put into practice: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college” (A Man Without a Country). I wish Mr. Vonnegut had ended more appropriately with what would have then been a prophetic addition, “…or that one is capable of thoughts exceeding 140 characters.” Dispense with the semicolon and one gets Twitter; or, rather, one gets short stories and novels written as if Twitter’s 140-character limit were the primary constraint upon their composition.

It is, of course, perfectly acceptable for a person to prefer literature that is not of the highest literary quality; just as it is perfectly acceptable for a person to occasionally indulge in foods that are unhealthy. I only mean to suggest that the recent works most highly regarded are inferior to even those works considered only modestly successful a hundred years ago. But the moment one begins to praise Rothko at Caravaggio’s expense, I feel I must lift a finger in protest. It is not that modern or contemporary works are entirely devoid of merit––far from it—but something has largely been lost and not merely changed. There is a point at which it is no longer a question of apples and oranges but of fruit-specific integrity. Modern apples, however, unlike modern fiction, have thus far, at least, retained their sweetness.


1.) In citing this as an example of unimpressive writing, I realize I will now proceed to make enemies.

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