What Dates a Book and Does It Matter?
Are you doing a Reading Challenge in 2020?
I love reading challenges and have posted about them before. Not only do we do a monthly challenge for my Read Along With Emilie Richards Facebook Group, there are a gazillion other challenges on the internet and possibly at your own library. That last link even features a 2020 Reading Challenge journal for you to keep information about the books you read.
I don’t need a challenge to make me pick up a book. What I do find is that I pick up books I might not normally read because they fit that month’s theme. So I’m reading outside my comfort zone much of the time.
This month, our challenge is: A book with a title that is either a question or a demand.
I’ll confess that when we came up with this category, I thought it would be fun. But when September rolled around, I worried. Were participants really going to find books that fit? I made a short list of possibilities from the latest Amazon bestseller list to get us started, but I shouldn’t have worried. Read Along participants have come up with terrific books.
I found and chose two for myself, an audio book by Lee Child with a “demand” title: Make Me. I happened to have it in my library. My other choice was a question, a book titled Madam, Will You Talk? by the romantic suspense author Mary Stewart, who is still popular today, although her heyday was in the 20th century. This was Stewart’s first novel, and I read another, Nine Coaches Waiting, for our 2019 category: A book from the generation you were born in. Because the book is set in Provence, and because I can’t travel there in real time, I decided to give it a try.
Mary Stewart may be gone, but she’s not forgotten.
In the meantime I had just finished And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, after watching the miniseries on Acorn, and I was struck by everything that dated both novels.
Here are some of the things that dated the books for me:
- Smoking. In Stewart’s book in particular (written in 1955) every character lights up, stubs out, breathes in someone else’s smoke, fools with cigarette cases, offers lights to another character. Hardly a page goes by without smoke circulating, and children in the vicinity make no difference.
- Cultural and literary allusions that don’t often appear today and never in such abundance in popular fiction. Shakespeare, Chaucer, medieval poetry, just to name a few.
- Class differences. Of course not all novels today feature people of the same classes. We have all kinds of characters, from all kinds of backgrounds. But who they are and where they came from on the social strata make them “types” in this book. It’s clear that by mentioning a certain accent, a way of dressing or presenting oneself is simply shorthand to help us dismiss someone or pay closer attention.
- Racial attitudes. And Then There Were None was originally titled Ten Little N-words. Yes, indeed, only substitute the actual word. Later it became Ten Little Indians. The first was taken from an old minstrel song which features in the plot. The word itself meant something different than the U.S. context, but was still racist by today’s standards. Additionally one character, responsible for the death of many African soldiers, points out that it didn’t really matter because they viewed death differently than Europeans. Another dismisses someone as “just a native.” In fairness to Christie, these characters are not nice people.
- Sexism. Women are clearly thought to be weaker emotionally and physically, and men consider themselves to be smarter, more courageous, and stronger in every way. These are handy attitudes when women are slated to be victims.
I’ll confess I found all this particularly interesting right now. I’m in the process of reissuing my Homecoming series, beginning with Runaway this month. In the past I’ve updated some of my reissues to reflect times and themes today. But updating these novels with, for instance, cell phones and instant computer access, would completely change the stories and how they unfold. In fact cell phones would destroy Fugitive, which comes out on November 1. And yes, I could fix that, as Lee Child does in Make Me, by saying that cell phone service doesn’t exist in the small town where the novel takes place. But by the time I explained away that and other elements of a story set in a town time forgot, none of it would ring true.
So I decided to keep all the books set as they’re written. But how long before novels lose all their luster because our attitudes have changed so substantially that issues, like the ones I listed above, jump out at us and shake our concentration? And is it better if the books are set a long time ago, instead of 50 or 60 years? Because then we just assume there will be many differences? Are we more willing to overlook attitudes with literary classics? Or less?
Have you read books where words and attitudes an author took for granted now seem offensive or disagreeable? Does that have an effect on what you read and how? Are you able to overlook prejudice to enjoy the story whether it’s dated or not?
For me, the talent of these authors still shines through. I see the novels as time capsules and most likely the authors were more educated and broad-minded than the general population. But I still squirm, despite that.
How about you?
I enjoy reading older books. Yes, there can be those squirm worthy parts. Times do indeed change. I hope for the better. I’m sure many years down the road, we may be looked at in the same way. I wonder? I think there are times when my kids look at me a little strange for things I think. They are of another generation that looks at things a little different than mine do or did. I like to think I’ve grown with the times. I’m going to have to ask my kids. It should be an interesting discussion. 🙂
Your post makes me stop and think. I have been an avid reader for over 60 years. Yes life and behaviors have changed. I certainly notice the changes technology has made in our world and our lives. That said, the way women used to be portrayed is what bothers me the most. I never really thought of it as dating books but it really does. The concept that women need to be cosseted , not how I think of women in general today. You mention smoking, this certainly dates books. Class, racial and sexual differences certainly date books. When I read these older books I think of them as historical books in some ways even though they weren’t written that way. Good books with good story lines hold up well though even with those things we aren’t comfortable with today. Just my opinion.
Very interesting observations! I don’t recall what I was reading recently where the main character smoked or handled cigarettes when stressed. It was kind of an eye opener to his things have changed. I think technology is a real game changer, but your Homecoming series is so well written it doesn’t suffer from it.
As a reader who read all of Sue Grafton’s books, many in her ‘alphabet’ series were written in the early years before cell phones, GPS and internet. I can’t imagine those things being added to update the stories. I enjoyed reading them as I remembered so those times of phone booths, yellow pages etc…but have to say in the climax, so many times I thought ‘if only she had a cell phone’!!!! 🙂
I agree that stories shouldn’t be updated with today’s technology that were initially written decades ago..too much would be lost and it lends a historical element for those who never lived during those times.
Since I am a big reader of Historical fiction,, I like the accuracy of the times. I learn many things from the books I read. Although I don’t agree with many of things portrayed, I think the stories would lose something without it. I love your books exactly as they are!
While reading an older book the other day there was a part in it where the detective had to find a phone booth to make a telephone call. I myself love things like that in a book – it ages the book but brings back good memories.
I quit reading a book last month because it had so much offensive language, but it was a book just written last year that was full of swear words. I complained to the other members of that book club, and was basically told, “That’s the way we all talk these days. We use those words all the time.” So maybe a lack of swear words would date a book. The lack of modern technology also dates books, but cell phones would have ruined a lot of mysteries. I remember that Sue Grafton kept her alphabet books set in the 1980’s so that she wouldn’t have to include such things. I also like to read historical fiction that is accurate for the time period.
This is rather late, sorry. I save some of your emails to read later. I don’t have a problem with books written in another era. I’m right there in the era in which it was written. I find them educational. I might think it would be handy to have a cell phone or some other modern convenience or I might remember when things were “like that”, but it doesn’t take away from the story for me. <3