Friday, July 12, 2013

Tall Tales: Judging a Book By Its Era

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I have heard several times in my literary travels that old books are of course much better than new ones. Far be it from me to pass up on a dusty, cobwebby delight chock full of adventure, unique characters, and solid moral premises. The older the better! The bigger the better! Yes indeed, I completely agree with that. After all, it would be rather questionable in me to challenge it, as most of the books I read are either old classics or reprinted old classics from the 1800s. There are a few from the 20th century, and even fewer from the 21st century, but by far the 19th century wins out.

Good then. We all agree, and we can go home now.

Not quite.

The statement "old books are better" has a false ideology lurking under its surface that deserves close attention, which attention we will be devoting to it today.

Every bibliophile who loves classic literature faces the temptation to place books from the Golden Age of Literature (being, for the purposes of this article the 1800s) on a pedestal. No one can write as well, we say. The morals are much better, and we have less bad elements to wade through. New literature isn't worth our attention, so why bother to give it any? Most modern stories, bibliophiles believe, are shallow at best and at worst full of situational ethics and moral ambiguity. In our excited campaigning for good literature we forget three things: (1. Golden Age books often fall into the trap of containing pre-digested morals (2. We should judge books by their merit alone, which is based on something far different than the country they're living in and (3. Modern books do deserve our attention.

1. Golden Age books often fall into the trap of containing pre-digested morals.
Generally people who read literature only from the 1800s prefer to read books from the Victorian era of literature, and call that "the Golden Age". The Victorian era is a very interesting one to study; this was during the time when boys' and girls' books were kept strictly separate from each other. Boys were given Ballantyne and Stevenson, girls were given Finley and Isabella Alden. Many Christian books were built not on the tale itself, but around a moral the tale was intended to illustrate. In other words, the story didn't really matter; it was the message that counted. Not only did this give the impression that true artistry was pointless (why even tack a story on if that's not what really matters?) this dangerous era pre-digested the morals before presenting them to the young people for consumption. This was the era of instant-serve Bible lessons in Christian literature, only to be equaled by that which we find in Christian books today, and not at all the genuine and hard-hitting teaching that God outlines in Scripture. When this happens, we are faced with a generation who cannot evaluate anything, but simply do things because they've been told that it's acceptable.

Most morals from the accepted "Golden Age" are also a little on the legalistic side rather than truly Scriptural. The spit-and-polish morals that focused on gilded externals rather than a true heart understanding. Lest we teach our children to be white-washed tombs, or even worse, to scorn the morals they need to embrace due to a clumsy presentation, we must make sure that we endorse literature that is both solidly Christian and solidly artistic at the same time.  Deftness and grace are key.

My definition of Golden Age is very different than that of Victorian literature. While I love Robert Louis Stevenson, my favorite novels are not the Isabella Alden kind. No, when I refer to the Golden Age, I refer to books with solid moral underpinnings, which may or may not be explicitly stated in the tale; good plotting, which is just as important to the author as the theme which the plot is meant to illustrate, and books which (whether Christian or not) give me a solid understanding of some tenet of the Christian faith--a solid understanding that stretches me in receiving it, and grows my mind as well as giving me a truth to live by. And because I find these elements by far among 19th century lit, that's why I call it the Golden Age of literature.

2. We should judge books by their merit alone, which is based on something far different than the era they're written in.

When I want to hide a book I'm reading through, it's generally because it's a modern book and I don't want to be caught with it. Not only is this a prideful reason, it's a very silly one. The merit of a book should never be judged by the era of it's origin alone, or condemned because it is very young in its authorship. There are plenty of good, solid evangelicals taking dominion of the writing field today, and plenty of evil philosophers in the 19th century that disguised their teachings under palatable Church language to get it past unwary Christians.

In the end, each era of history has it's false teachers that creep into the literature, and it is important to be aware of the time in which a book may be written, and what's going on politically and morally. Then, after we've taken the good and bad into account we can turn to the book itself and ask "Did the author succumb to the error of their times, or were they aloof from it?" Knowing the era of history is vitally important, so long as we don't use it as the sole criteria of a book's merit.

Those of us who love old literature generally accept a book because it's age gives us an indication of it's worth: but we see time and again in Scripture that we judge not by age nor by appearance, but by conformance to Biblical law.

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. ~Philippians 1:9-11

3. Modern books do deserve our attention.

There are two factors that keep us from achieving the same level of literature as the Golden Age authors did. The first is education. We're not nearly as educated in the things that matter as older authors used to be; and the resources we use aren't helping us. Textbooks that are riddled with myths and focus more on score than retention, and a one-size-fits-all mold that doesn't allow students to diversify holds us back from researching what we really need to know to fit the work God has given us. In America, we believe that all people must be perfectly proficient in the same things, or they're not a whole person. But every genius writer realized they weren't called to know everything; they specialized in the knowledge that was most necessary to their work. So to achieve the Golden Age standards of literature we need to have a more rigorous and diversified education.

The second factor that helped shape Golden Age authors which we often fail to take advantage of today is that of time. Since they didn't have the ability to crank out manuscripts quickly on the computer, the activity of writing stories by hand forced them to think more carefully about what they were going to say, and allowed them more time for reflection on whether or not the story worked. In fact, if you look at literature, the best manuscripts had a great deal of time poured into them. Sometimes stories were laid aside for years and then pulled out again and made even better. In today's age, if we forced ourselves to take a little longer we might very well find that we are pulling out better quality.

That being said, if it is true that Christian children should stand on the shoulders of their parents, even surpassing them, then it necessarily follows that we as Christian authors should be standing on the shoulders of the authors who have gone before us. Oftentimes in our walk as Christians we say things like "Modern-day Christians could never be as good a Christian as David or Paul or Moses." and as bibliophiles we carry the same ideology into reading and say  "Oh, no author today could ever be as good as Charles Dickens, or Walter Scott, or G.A. Henty".

God gave us the same size and type of brain, the same imagination and creativity that every human possesses, the same Scripture to draw from and even more research resources at our fingertips as our favorite 19th century authors.  In reality, we forget that all these people we laud so highly were humans just like us. Let's face it: G.A. Henty is a very good author, but he had writing style issues he could have improved just like everyone else. Charles Dickens didn't have any, but that's because he's my favorite. ;) Every single author, however popular, had weak points, just like us. But are they known for those weak points? Of course not! Readers focus on the strengths they had, because they outshone the weaknesses. The same strengths are available to authors today.

When we refuse to read modern literature and turn up our noses at it, we're taking the perspective that it's just impossible to write good books anymore; but that's neither an attitude of dominion nor a very optimistic viewpoint. Would God really only have given a few men from a select century the ability to write quality literature, and the millions that are to follow have no hope? True, finding good literature from the 20th and 21st centuries isn't always easy, but we need to make the effort to find it, even if that effort requires wading through a lot of poor quality in the process. Authors need help; young authors need hope; and the fact is, we face the same national sins, the same weaknesses, and the same abilities and disabilities of human nature that our Golden Age favorites did. There is good modern literature out there; and with a little digging we can unearth the gems.

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
~Ecclesiastes 1:9

When we judge with discernment, we judge not based on any externals: a pretty binding or a ragged one, or a copyright date on the inside page. We judge by worldviews and biblical principles. Sometimes we appreciate a certain era of literature because the worldview was predominately good, or reject one because the prevalent philosophies were predominately bad. As long as we're judging by evaluation of worldview, we should be able to find numerous books from all eras to fill our reading diet, and never have to settle for just one century of the written word.

Why not try a new era of literature sometime?

Lady Bibliophile


  1. Very interesting post, Lady B! Good points.
    I must admit; I'm somewhat like that in my reading--being more inclined to read an older book just because of its copyright least where fiction is concerned. This is a good reminder to give all the eras a chance. ;)

    Oh, and I loved the video of your booksale! That looked like such fun; I wish I could have been there with you. :)

    Hope you're having a delightful week! ;):D


    1. Thank-you Kyla! I'm glad you enjoyed the post. :D And I wish you could have been at the book sale too; it would have been so fun to look over the tables together. ;) I'm sure you would have found a lot of treasures as well.

      I came away with a new book from our WA trip--we went to a Goodwill, and lo and behold, there was something begging for me to take it home. :P Always enough space for a new book friend, and I read the entire thing while we were on our trip. :)

      We DID have a delightful week, and I'm sure we'll have plenty of stories to share. ;)

  2. Now, that I think about it, I DO read books from different eras. I never really thought about it before. I like to read the old classics from the 19th century, but there are plenty of books I enjoy from the 20th.
    Great post! You bring up a good point.

  3. A great post. I think, Schuyler, you've hit the nail on the proverbial head. Truth be told, my parents have brought me up with the importance of 'testing' all things, whether it is both good, true, virtuous, God-honouring, etc... so, far a long time I read little classic or modern fiction besides a few children's books and biographies that inspired and blessed (besides bearing the language of 'the Greats')... as I grew up, and found my love for writing and delved more into fiction, especially the classics (finding modern fiction generally quite repulsive - more on that in a moment) Dad has reminded me time and again that because it is classic doesn't mean that it's good or wholesome; sometimes the complete opposite. Some are filled with worldliness/vanity and the sensuality or the upperclass or the horrors of the poverty-stricken, soaked up in tales of revenge and courtly love, etc, besides the French ideologies and ungodly worldviews that started to penetrate society. So I definitely agree with you on that score - still, generally, the whole culture of the nineteenth century promoted more God-honouring ideas and arts (they weren't perfect!), and I find that while it was sad that many were but deists who thought of the Christian faith as one of works - I'd rather read a classic story like that than a modern one that promotes secular humanism, blatant immorality and disbelief in God, plus witchcraft, etc. What I think has happened with Christian fiction is that it isn't so much their writing (actually, the style of modern fiction can be quite captivating above the classics at times), but it is that their Christianity is watered down - we have lost our way and become like the world as they attempted to 'reach' it. Nowadays, I rarely ever touch a modern Christian fiction book because I know it will have things I cannot, in all good conscience, accept to read and be defiled with or believe. However, as you said, there are good stories out there (new gems), but we just need to mine a bit and encourage authors to pursue what is good both in the literary and spiritual realm. I am especially hopeful that God can use an army of new, young writers to accomplish this purpose of reviving Christian modern fiction and impact our culture for His glory. That's the exciting thing. But the most important thing is to hold onto the Lord, and also keep honing our writing skills and learning from the Greats of the past who went before us (Hebrews 11) ^_^

    On that note, the literature that I love most in literary style, etc, mostly comes from the twentieth century. Funny that.

    1. Very good thoughts Joy. :) I really liked them. Your parents were right; testing is a huge key in reading, and when we test based on an individual thing (though including also the influences surrounding it) we make much wiser decisions than lumping it all together into judgments by era.

      Oh yes, indeed, just because it's a classic doesn't mean it's good. I've found that to be quite the case. Pretty covers and good-sounding authors are far from indications of worth. There's a lot of sensual immorality in the classics, even in the good ones, very likely because of the French influence.

      But as you say, the nineteenth century was generally an era when Christian morals were accepted. Thomas Jefferson, who was our third president in the very beginning of the 1800s, had to run a Christian campaign even though he was no Christian, because that was the main view of society at the time. I wish the Christians were still able to give that kind of cultural pressure today, and I think that pressure existed for authors and scholars in that era as well as for politicians. :)

      Ah, yes, and I also liked what you said in that Christian fiction (or modern fiction in general, not to give Christian fiction a bad rap!) is very watered down. So watered down in fact, that I consider it a dangerous thing to read a lot of it from a grammar/composition perspective, as well as a moral one, because I think it weakens our vocabulary and common sense as well as our understanding of Scripture.

      We need new authors. You hope to be one, I hope to be one, and I know a host of others with that dream as well. Lord willing, it will come to pass, and we will see a revival of good literature. After all, it would be splendid to have people look back on our efforts in the 21st century and say "Now *that* was an era in which to be a bibliophile." :)


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