Sunday Salon: Should we judge older books by today’s standards?

The Sunday Salon

This year I joined the Classics Club, with the aim of reading a list of 50 classics in five years. Some of my list are modern classics (okay, a lot) but about half were written before 1930 and, well, those times they were quite different. I’ve only read one book off my list so far (review to follow soon), but I’ve read enough older books in the past to know that the same problem raises its ugly head time and again: the different moral and social standards of earlier times can be upsetting and affect my opinion of the book. Is it wrong of me to let that happen?

The thing is, while in, say, 1860, language (and indeed actions) that were sexist, racist, homophobic and all sorts of other discriminatory were common throughout society, does that really mean that all people then didn’t know those derogatory terms were wrong?

Now, you could argue that, right or wrong, if discriminatory language was common, then a novelist writing a realistic story has a right, or even a duty, to reflect that language in their work. But equally you could argue that a novelist has a duty to make it clear that such language is not morally defensible.

Moralising, however, is another of those things that older books tend to do that can put me right off. Which I know sounds a bit hypocritical after all the above. But it is tedious, right, when you can see a message being driven home from a mile off?

What about you? Do you judge older books by today’s standards? Are there any other things that put you off a book?

6 thoughts on “Sunday Salon: Should we judge older books by today’s standards?

  1. Bryan G. Robinson January 25, 2015 at 7:19 pm

    Sometimes I admit I have been put off by such books and then other times, well…I haven’t. I think it depends somewhat on the context and how prevalent or far-reaching the discriminatory language was, and is. I know that’s wishy-washy, but I always liked Charlie Brown. 😉

  2. Deb Nance at Readerbuzz January 25, 2015 at 9:56 pm

    I think about it like I do a person in real life who says things that are difficult…I try to consider the place from which they came, and try to be compassionate.

    Though it can be tricky….

  3. Allison @ The Book Wheel January 26, 2015 at 1:16 am

    I’ve been turned off by older books because they were difficult to get into but never because their morals were different. I actually enjoy reading books that were set in another time period because it gives me a better perspective of how life was at the time, even if it was more difficult.

  4. Barbara Bartels January 26, 2015 at 1:56 am

    Historians call this problem the fallacy of “presentism.” Here’s the first description from Wikipedia: In literary and historical analysis, presentism is a mode of literary or historical analysis in which present-day ideas and perspectives are anachronistically introduced into depictions or interpretations of the past. Some modern historians seek to avoid presentism in their work because they believe it creates a distorted understanding of their subject matter.[1] The practice of presentism is a common fallacy in historical writings.
    I had never heard this word before until I hung out with historians for a bit. I like the way Deb approaches it better — as an issue of compassion.

  5. Kate Gardner January 27, 2015 at 7:10 pm

    Bryan, Deb Yes, it’s absolutely a more subtle issue than I’ve painted it. And I generally don’t find myself judging the author so much as the time they lived in.

    Allison I agree, I enjoy learning about other time periods, just as I enjoy learning about other parts of the world, and it’s good to see how different societies can be even as they share essentially the same values. However, I still struggle with any form of dehumanisation, I don’t think any truly moral society should allow that.

    Barbara I suppose my problem is that I don’t think racism, to take one example, is a “modern idea”. I think people have been aware of it and discussed it for centuries, and therefore I’m not sure I can excuse its prevalence in older books. Of course there are subtleties of language that have changed greatly that we do need to be wary of judging. Take Benedict Cumberbatch’s “coloured” faux pas this week – a couple of decades ago that was the approved non-racist term to use.

  6. Booker Talk February 1, 2015 at 11:05 am

    What puts me off very old classics is usually the style of writing – hence why I never liked Pilgrims Progress or The Castle of Otranto – rather than the way they deal with moral issues. I read them to understand attitudes of the time and whatever my own views, I look at them as reflecting a moment in time

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