The thirty-year rule.

The thirty-year rule.

Rerunning this from last year because I feel like this every time I finish putting together (and previewing books for) a summer reading guide: after months of reading (mostly) great, modern fiction, I’m ready for the old stuff. (My current read: Little Women.)

I was given this advice nearly twenty years ago, when I was embarking on college visits. While on campus, attend as many classes as you can. Ask the professors for the course syllabi. Review the reading lists carefully. If the majority of the school’s required texts aren’t at least thirty years old, run for the hills.

I find myself thinking about this thirty-year rule every summer, and never more so than this year.

I approached this year’s summer reading guide somewhat differently than in years past. Previous years’ guides contained categories for classics, for gorgeous novels, even for memoirs that have been around a while.

Not lately. The 2014 and 2015 guides focused squarely on modern fiction, (with a few nerdy nonfiction reads thrown in for good measure).

I read a ton of great books last summer (and in preparation for this year’s summer reading guide). My personal favorites were The Sea of Tranquility (2 years old), Astonish Me (not even a year old), Peace Like a River (13 years old), Team of Rivals (9 years old), and I Capture the Castle (66 years old). (If re-reading counts, add Crossing to Safety to the list. 27 years old.)

I enjoyed so much of my summer reading, but after a while the steady diet of modern fiction took its toll. (Ironic, because I used to never read modern fiction. I didn’t know where to start, so I didn’t even try. Blogging has changed that.)

I have a hard time describing what it is, exactly, that I find disappointing about so much modern fiction, even modern literary fiction. I know it when I see it, but I struggle to describe it.

I’ll try. To generalize: even with a good story and strong prose, too many modern novels lack the depth, richness, and complexity that I hope to glimpse in my serious reads. I feel like I’m just skimming the surface, because the author lacked the desire, or the skill, to take the reader deeper.

The characters are flat, at worst, or self-consciously three-dimensional, at best. The novels give up all their secrets on the first reading, or the second. Great books can hold out much longer than that—for forever, some of them.

And so I find myself evaluating my reading list through the lens of this thirty-year rule. That’s unfair, because it isn’t at all the purpose for which it was intended, but I come back to it all the same. It tells me it’s time to swing the pendulum back in the other direction.

I don’t believe it’s an ironclad rule, by any means, but a shortcut to get to the good stuff—the books with substance and staying power.

As I move into fall, I’m filling my shelves with old books—books that are older than me, at the very least.

Of course I’ll keep reading new ones. I just started Outlander (23 years old) and picked up the new Tana French from the library (10 days old). I can’t help myself; I wouldn’t want to.

But I am hungry for the old.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on modern fiction, novels with staying power, and the thirty-year rule. 

read old books

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109 comments

  1. Victoria says:

    I read this on Friday but didn’t have time to comment…You captured my thoughts EXACTLY. Why aren’t more people writing literary, soul speaking, real fiction these days? I am constantly going back and looking for old books because their authors almost always had a skill and a mind that GOT life in a way that makes their books more than just fluff.

    You should post (or maybe you already have) about your favorite pieces of GOOD literature. 🙂 Old or new, my mind is always hungry for another one.

  2. Ginger says:

    I loosely try and follow C.S. Lewis’ 3-to-1 rule:

    “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”

    Sometimes the new ones call to me and get the best of me, but it’s a good percentage to strive for.

  3. Ginger says:

    One other thought, just for fun is that when I do read a modern book that I have a suspicion might be a classic, I try and track down a first edition copy. I figure if I’m right about one or two, it only cost me $15-20, and my kid’s kids’ kids’… will have some fun someday on Antique Roadshow. 🙂

  4. I agree that you can’t stay in the new fiction category too long without getting hungry for really good books. The benefit of the 30 year rule is that these books have already been through “survival of the fittest” so you don’t usually have to wade through the crap to get to the good ones. If a lot of people tell me a new book is good I’ll give it a try, but often I’m left wondering if they ever read a really good book. For the most part I just appreciate that they read. I have a friend that reads several genre of books at one time, always including a fantasy book (her favorite) and a brain book (she calls them). I’m a one book at a time kind of girl.

  5. Melanie says:

    Well here is my dirty little secret and like all secrets I am embarrassed to admit it, I have not read hardly any of the classics. I have never read any Jane Austen ( or should I say completed, I did start Pride and Prejudice ). I read Anne of Green Gables for the first time last year and loved it. The only other classic I have finished is Jane Eyre.
    So I’ve decided to abandon my summer reading guide for now and read the classics. Some of them will be heavy for summer reading I’m sure and I may have to sneak some modern fiction in every now and then, but I’m going to give it at least a worthwhile shot.

  6. I just finished Little Women for the first time last week. Ultimately, I really enjoyed it, though there were some stylistic choices I didn’t really like. What do you think of it so far?

    I totally get your point about modern books. I think a lot of them have one layer to them, sometimes two. What I like about the old books is that you can read them just for plot if you want, but there’s almost always some symbolism, allegory, political commentary, etc. The characters and their motivations have usually been fleshed out so well that their significance extends beyond the events of the story. And I think the age of the old books allows us to see the element of the timeless in the great ones, which may not have been as apparent when they were first published.

  7. Sue says:

    I, too, agree with the thoughts on modern fiction. It’s like reading an outline of a good story, or watching the TV version. I’ve always assumed that in the past, writers could take years to publish a book, but now there is pressure to put out something new every year or so.

  8. Dana says:

    I agree with you , Anne, when you say modern fiction can often disappoint because of the lack of depth in characterization or even plot. Even really good modern fiction often begins well but then falls flat near the end ( The Goldfinch for instance, which was enthralling in the beginning, then became tedious and finally ended too neatly). I do love modern fiction but I read it for times when I need/want a quick -read and a pat ending. If I am in the mood for deep thinking and reading I hit the classics. A few modern novelists have gotten it right, Leif Enger, Stephanie Kallos to name my favorites. I just finished re-reading Little Women and am now reading Don Quixote for the first time. After Quixote I want to re-read To Kill a Mockingbird before Go Set A Watchman comes out. I also have The Pickwick Papers ( I am reading Dickens in order, I read Sketches by Boz last year), Emma,
    Sense and Sensibility and a re-read of The Secret Garden and Pride and Prejudice in my TBR pile. I will mix in some non-fiction and some new fiction as well.

    I find that after I read a classic, I don’t have a lot of patience with a not well written modern book.

  9. Rayni Peavy says:

    I just started reading Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray. It’s my first time reading it and I’m not far in but already I am so taken by his beautifully worded descriptions and humorous wit! I keep laughing out loud at all of his clever lines. I think next I want to read Bram Stoker’s Dracula and then Shelley’s Frankenstein; neither of which I have read. Also on my list is Hamlet. Gosh, that’s some heavy summer reading, isn’t it? But I have had a yearning to read classics this year that I haven’t read before.

  10. Ciera S says:

    I’m proud that the college I just graduated from made a point of reading across the centuries. I feel like it’s given me a great view of what literature CAN be. But I think it’s important the discussion recognizes that older fiction may provide something different than modern/genre fiction, without claiming that modern fiction is inherently lesser or contains less craft. Because if modern fiction is “lesser”, than people who read it are lesser–and that’s not helpful for anyone.

  11. Steph says:

    Yes! If I ever don’t have my list with me or if I am just lazy and want a good book without much effort, I just visit the “paperback classics” section of my local library. I have not been let down yet. Even books that I wouldn’t characterize as my style have been enjoyed. As a nursing major in college who tested out of lit classes in the AP system, there are plenty of classics that are new to me or that I enjoy as an adult in a way that I never would have as a teenager. I now have a soft spot for Willa Cather, and one of my friends says all she remembers from reading Cather’s books in college is how depressing they are. 🙂

  12. Amanda says:

    I don’t read a ton of modern fiction (like you, I don’t know where to start…though you help!). There are definitely modern books I’ve really enjoyed (Orphan Master’s Son, Calligrapher’s Daughter, All the Light We Cannot See, Big Little Lies), but I basically agree that a lot of them seem less rich. It’s like frozen yogurt – perfectly good, sometimes just what you want, but disappointing if you eat it immediately after ice cream 🙂

    My main issue with modern novels is something I can’t seem to identify though. They seem to all have this undercurrent of depression and emptiness, maybe? I don’t mean explicitly — I mean even with happy, contented characters. I don’t get the feeling the authors are even doing it on purpose. It’s not like the characters in Dickens were happy! It’s just that I notice this soullessness sometimes with modern novels? Maybe? Is there any chance you know what I’m talking about and can name it for me?

  13. Laura says:

    I double-majored in history and literature in college and would be the first to say that I possess a deep affection for the old chestnuts of English lit. Keats makes me swoon. I’ve read Les Miserables 3 times and loved it more each time. Fitzgerald captivates me. If I could sit down with anybody for a conversation over coffee I would choose Dostoevsky. And anyone who knows me will say that I am never happier than when I am curled up with my girls Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, and Louisa May Alcott.

    However, I cringe at the idea that literature has somehow declined over the past century. People decry the so-called death of the novel, but I am of that potentially irksome optimistic stock who firmly believes that the best is yet to come. And to dismiss contemporary literature because it doesn’t bring the same level of comfort as the classics or seems to lack depth in my mind is missing the point. When it comes to Austen, Keats, Dickens, Rossetti, Tolstoy, Hemingway, and the rest, we benefit from the gift of hindsight. For decades these classic works have survived a gradual winnowing process where the nonsense and the trite has been consigned to the trashbin of history and now we are handed the very best from ages past. However, with the stuff that’s published in our own time we’re the ones responsible for cutting through the noise of lots of cheap tripe to find the good stuff that speaks to our hearts and reveals something new about human nature.

    But those books do exist. And I would argue that Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, A.S. Byatt, Tom Stoppard, Philip Roth, Michael Chabon, and hundreds others are creating masterpieces that build on the giants who came before them but also add something altogether new to the conversation. We’re no longer just seeing the halls of Pemberley, but the South Bronx, the Spokane Indian Reservation, and war-torn Nigeria-spaces inhabited by the marginalized that have remained silent for centuries. While I find much contemporary fiction that I read wholly forgettable (for instance I just finished the Liane Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot and want those 400 pages of my life back, thank you very much) I firmly believe that Sherman Alexie’s Junior deserves a spot at the table alongside Holden Caufield, and Jo March and Lizzie Bennet would welcome their long lost sister Liesel Meminger with open arms.

    • Ess says:

      Yes! You stated this far more eloquently than I could have. I have major concerns with the 30 year rule – especially as women’s studies major from the early 2000s 🙂 I want to hear from a variety of authors, not just white men.

    • Ciera S says:

      This is exactly what I was trying to get at. It’s great that people have preferences, but not at the cost of condemning/ridiculing modern literature. (Not that I think Anne’s original post was necessarily doing that.)

  14. You know, I’d venture to say that it isn’t that 30+ year old books are better than modern ones. I think it’s just that the test of time tends to weed out a lot of the books that are “meh” – the books people are still talking about and recommending 30+ years later are probably just a tiny fraction of the books that came out in those years, you know?

  15. Thanks for rerunning this… I know I need to read both the old and the new and if I neglect the old stuff I will eventually end up craving it. It reminds me of a CS Lewis essay on reading old books – he says that it is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between… or at least one old one for every three new ones. I also heard a sermon recently about how sometimes, when our souls are weary, we find rest in old books, old songs and old prayers … words that have stood the test of time and been passed on for centuries.

    • Candida says:

      That is something that I’ve done for a while by default. Couple of new books, couple of old favorites. I just get an itch for a certain story, or an era that is not my own. It would be hard for me to only read new. Or only one set of old. I recently read The Weird Sisters, the father teaches only Shakespeare as a college course. His replies are mostly Shakespearean and it implies that he reads little that does not deal with the man. THAT is way too much old reading for my taste, it was almost too much for me in the context of the book. Shakespeare is not my favorite old author.

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