Read Old Books, Write New Books

C. S. Lewis (maybe you’ve heard of him) famously commended the reading of old books:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books…. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books (from “On the Reading of Old Books” in God in the Dock).

I love it when C. S. Lewis takes the same view as I do. In particular, I consider the reading of old books to be a helpful—even indispensable—habit for writers. I recommend Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Hemingway, Thoreau and Emerson, Bacon and Shakespeare and Dickens, among many, many others. We can learn so much from such authors and their books.

However, I must add a qualification. Read old books, but do not imitate or absorb every writing technique of those authors.

So much has changed over the years in what people read, what they expect when they read, and what they will tolerate when they read. I offer you just four quick examples:

  1. Brevity

Old books—not all, but many—were often written to be read aloud, in the days before radio and television. Others were serialized and published episodically in weekly or monthly magazines. Those formats permitted longer scenes and sometimes rambling descriptions. Such is no longer the case. Today’s readers expect books to move along at a faster pace than, say, James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans—faster, even, than a novel from twenty-five or fifty years ago.

  1. POV

Modern readers of fiction want to get lost in a book’s fictional setting. Careful attention to “point of view” (that is, whose “head” I’m in when I’m reading a fiction scene) maintains the illusion. A Dickens or Dostoevsky novel may shift point-of-view from one character to another several times in a single scene, but that won’t fly these days. “Head hopping” wasn’t a crime in their day, but it is for modern writers.

  1. Dialogue tags

I opened Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice to a random page. On that page, I saw six dialogue tags: “she repeated,” “he then replied,” “she continued,” “said Darcy,” “repeated Darcy,” “cried Elizabeth.” These days, an editor might strike half—or all—of those tags, for various reasons. First, because they describe the obvious. Also because there’s nothing wrong with “said” (in fact, today’s readers barely read the word; their eyes slide over it except when it helps to identify the speaker). And capable writers use fewer tags nowadays, preferring to tag dialogue with action (He stepped to the window. “What do you mean?”) or even letting the tone or manner of speaking identify the character instead of “he said” or “she interlocuted.”

  1. Historical accuracy

Earlier this year, The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) announced a decision to change the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award (named for the author of the popular Little House on the Prairie books) to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. The ALSC said the reason for the decision was the depiction of racist attitudes in the books. Others expressed dismay at the move, pointing out that the wrongness of the attitudes were also depicted. Nonetheless, it is an illustration of the challenges today’s writers face. The need for integrity and accuracy (historical and otherwise) has never been greater, nor the demand for sensitivity and equanimity. Some words can be implied but may not be used. Some attitudes or actions that may be completely accurate will be thoroughly censured. We can’t know every possible reaction to our words, but we must—particularly as Christian writers—consider our words carefully and seek to enlighten and uplift in a dark and downtrodden world.

These are just a few differences to be noted and observed by those of us who read old books. No doubt this blog’s readers can add a few from your own experience. I hope you will.



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