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?