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. 

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109 comments

  1. What a bizarre rule. I would think the opposite would indicate good teaching as it is easy to never change your classes since you started teaching 30-odd years ago. Plus, 50 years ago, how easy was it to find diverse books?

    But then, I only took one English class, Jane Austen.

    • Maria says:

      I agree!! The professor I admired most in these past few years always kept his (extensive) reading lists up to date. He always included recent and also controversial titles and gave us detailed reviews/recommendations/opinions on his reading list in the first session of the semster, I loved that. Other professors just sticked with their same old lists year after year, playing it safe.

      • Maria says:

        Maybe to avoid confusion I should add that I was referring to Theology classes at University in Germany. Reading lists in this case were not mandatory but options from which we could choose as we saw fit.

    • Anne says:

      That’s an interesting point about the diverse books.

      And a lot of it has to do with the discipline. At my old, long-established university, the professors vehemently decried secondary sources–in the humanities. I never took organic chemistry, or marine biology, but those standards would have HAD to be different.

  2. Sara K. says:

    I have found a similar problem with much of the modern fiction. It lacks depth and character development! Characters are what drive a book for me (sooooooo glad you are reading Outlander though as they are my FAVORITES! Talk about strong characters and plot too!).

    I don’t necessarily look for older books, but I’m really picky about my books. And I’ve reached a point where I’m ok saying “I gave this book a solid attempt and it just isn’t working for me”. I don’t like to leave a book unfinished, but there are just too many good books out there to read for me to waste my limited time on mediocre books!

      • Tracy S. says:

        I never used to abandon books, but I have left a trail of abandoned books the last few years. I think it had more to do with some really stressful situations in my life making me unable to concentrate than with the books themselves. Instead, I turned to old favorites like Austen. Outlander is one of the books I abandoned. Maybe I will go back to it sometime, since I have liked some of her later books. I am interested to hear what you think of it.

        • Shannon says:

          I, too, abandoned Outlander. I really, really, wanted to like it because it has all of the traits that I usually love in a book, but her writing style was annoying and I just could not make myself care about the protagonist. I have good friends, whose book opinions I value highly, who tell me to give it another try, and I may someday. For now, though, my small amount of reading time is simply too valuable to waste time on a book whose writing seemed trite.

        • Bekki Page says:

          Yesssssssss! I dragged my 15 year old son kicking and screaming into Dracula this year. Halfway through he couldn’t put it down, and now it’s his favorite book…even over his beloved Percy Jackson series.

  3. Lisa says:

    I agree! I need characters to come alive, not just reading about someone’s situation on the surface.
    And I’ve definitely arrived at the same point in my life that Sarah has. I used to force myself to finish out a book, hoping that I’d have a different perspective once was done. It usually doesn’t happen, so I’ve finally given myself permission to just close a book and move onto something that I like better.
    Adding the books you read that I haven’t to my Goodreads list right now! Thanks!

  4. Kayris says:

    I was a biology major, so texts 30 years old would be SERIOUSLY out of date. Even now, I read a lot of science based non fiction and if a book is more than five years old, it’s old news. Example: I read a book about the 1918 flu pandemic that was published in 1999. I read it in early 2013. At the end of the book, scientists didn’t know what made that strain of flu so virulent, but they figured it out in 2007.

    However, I do enjoy Sue Grafton’s alphabet series, set in the 1980s. Being a private investigator without cell phones and internet is a much more interesting story than if her character had access to technology.

    • Anne says:

      I think we can give the sciences a pass. 🙂

      And that’s so interesting about Sue Grafton novels and technology. I’ve never read anything by her, but my grandmother is addicted to her mysteries.

    • Kelty Brittle says:

      I love Sue Grafton’s Alphabet series! Each book is a mostly self-contained mystery but the story arch of the main character of the series has been rich and well-done. The first one was published in 1982, so hey, the series at least is 30 years old. 😉

  5. Jenn says:

    I can’t weigh in on the adult fiction but I find this true for kids fiction books. The older ones just have more depth. The characters are more subtle and complex. You have to infer so much more than with the modern books that just say it out right. I think this helps kids to be more understanding of the subtle changes in peoples attitudes. It helps them pick up on if someone else is feeling bad or upset. As opposed to modern books that say or scream it!

    • I agree. Although there are many current picture books I adore, today’s authors seem like they’re afraid to put too many words on a page because modern kids can’t look at the same page for more than 15 seconds. So we balance it out with a healthy dose of Robert McCloskey and Virginia Lee Burton.

      • Charyse H. says:

        Yes! Children’s books are soooo short now! Sometimes I like it, if I’m especially tired and don’t want to read very long before putting my daughter to bed, but other times I feel like it was a waste of time.

        I love McCloskey & Burton! Memories of my great grandmother revolve around their stories and a little red bag.

        • Abby says:

          I appreciate a hearty mix of short and long children’s books! My son (now 3) is a big reader, and outgrew short board books pretty early– around 12 months old. His favorites around one year were Harold and the Purple Crayon, Cat in the Hat, & Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. My daughter, now 16 months, has *just* gotten to where she can read more than one page of a board book at a time. She’ll do Dear Zoo, or books with about 5-10 words per page, but any longer and she is clamoring to get down. If I tried to read her longer books at this age, she just wouldn’t read at all! Not all kids are the same, my daughter is a “modern kid”, I guess, but I raised her just as I have my son, who is naturally more inclined toward reading.

    • The older ones also tend to have a lot more racism. I cringe reading Penrod or even The Secret Garden.

      I would submit, however, that even ignoring the racism it isn’t really that old children’s books are better than new books any more than old music is better than new music. Yes, a lot of what people write today is crap, but, that was also true back in the day. The difference is that the crap from yesteryear didn’t survive to today (and if we read it back then, we don’t remember it like we remember the good stuff) so it seems like it was a lot less prevalent back then but it really isn’t.

      I’d also say we’re undergoing a golden age of YA fiction right now. There’s so much amazing stuff to read. And with little kids’ children’s books– Mo Willems just by himself is a marvel. In terms of longer kids’ children’s books my guess there is that those have moved to chapter format. Bill Peet (who wrote long-ass picture books) really isn’t of reading or interest level to really little kids, but the kids who are the right age can also read The Magic Treehouse series now.

      • Shannon says:

        Agreed – YA is MUCH better today than it was 30 years ago. It is more complex, more diverse, with better character development. It has also gotten better at hiding the life lessons and morals – not so in- your- face as the books I read as a teen!

  6. Sloan says:

    Hmmm. I have never heard this rule before, but it’s interesting. Truthfully, most of my reading is much more current than that, but I do love books that have been around for a long time (Anne-girl being my all-time favorite.) I’ll have to start thinking about this as I look for books.

  7. Kristen says:

    Do you think the issue is just that the chaff hasn’t been separated from the grain yet when it comes to modern novels?

    I always think of this in terms of music history: Back in Bach’s day, it’s not as though everyone was writing inspired music. In every era in history, there has been lazy, cheap music writing that immediately appeals to the masses. But the cheap music hasn’t stuck around; only the good stuff has.

    So, it’s easy to think that there was nothing but good music back in the day.

    Similarly, I’m sure there was some crappy novel writing going on in Jane Austen’s day, but that stuff hasn’t lasted.

    Perhaps in 100 years, a few novels from our time will have stood the test of time?

    • ruth says:

      What a good insight. Though my personal feelings about a favorite series lead me to believe that sometimes, you can tell the wheat right away.
      Spending some time with Jane Austen this year, I’ve learned that she read a hefty diet of the crappy novels of her day! So maybe our diets can take some wheat and some chaff.

      • Anne says:

        “Spending some time with Jane Austen this year, I’ve learned that she read a hefty diet of the crappy novels of her day!”

        Yes, I’ve read that! No wonder she’s still so relatable two hundred years later. 🙂

    • Anne says:

      “Do you think the issue is just that the chaff hasn’t been separated from the grain yet when it comes to modern novels?”

      Yes, I think that’s a huge factor. The publicity machine can make bestsellers, but they can’t make a book endure. Only time can do that. (Working theory, at least.)

      The music comparison is a good one.

      • Bethany says:

        Anne, although you are absolutely correct that only time can make a book endure, have you considered a future blog post where you predict what modern novels will eventually become classics? It seems its would be fun and insightful.

    • Suzanne says:

      This is exactly what I was thinking while reading this post. In one of my literature classes this past semester, we discussed how some of the “bestsellers” of the early 1800s are never read anymore, hardly even heard of, while many of the novels we consider “classic” today were barely read during the author’s lifetime.

      I think that will be true of contemporary literature. If they don’t actually have the substance to carry them, the popular bestsellers of today will be forgotten in thirty years and the books with substance (that maybe aren’t getting the same attention now) will still be around.

    • Kelty Brittle says:

      I was thinking that myself, that in 30 years and beyond, the good stuff has lasted and the low-quality stuff has most-likely faded into oblivion.

  8. “The novels give up all their secrets on the first reading, or the second.” What a good way to describe the difference between a best-seller and a classic! And it’s so true–a novel that has stood the test of time can be read and reread again and again with new discoveries every time. The Hiding Place is one of those books for me.

    That said, I have read some great modern fiction this year (The Light Between Oceans, Dancing on Broken Glass) that seems like it’s going to stay with me for awhile. Also some great nonfiction (Notes from a Blue Bike, All Joy and No Fun).

    But what am I reading right now? Oliver Twist. Like you, I find myself craving balance in my reading diet.

    • Jules says:

      The Light Between Oceans was wonderful wasn’t it? I was thinking of it as I read the comments about books that may ultimately stand the test of time. I believe that will.

    • Andrea says:

      I wholeheartedly want my children to have exposure to the classics and am enjoying reading many of the classics with them that I hadn’t read before. I’m reading Oliver Twist for the first time with my 13 year old daughter right now, and read A Tale of Two Cities with another daughter a few years ago. I seem to make reading classics aloud together a ritual with my kids when they are middle school age. They still crave the special time with me enough to listen to whatever I want to read! It also keeps me reading to the end when I might otherwise have given up when life gets hectic.

  9. Jacqueline says:

    I get what you’re saying about a lot of modern fiction being shallow. I hate reading a book with flat characters and little-to-no character development. It’s especially frustrating with children’s literature, as was mentioned in previous comments. But I agree with Kristen, that time will separate the good writing from the mediocre/bad. There are some modern novels that I have found recently to be really wonderful (mostly due to your great recommendations, Anne!) “The Poisonwood Bible” and “Gilead” are two that I read this year that have really stuck with me, and deserve multiple re-readings.

  10. Kimber-Leigh says:

    Anne, I really enjoyed this post! (And love that someone gave you that advice at that time in your life!) I have found that for me at least, one thing (in addition to what you’ve suggested) that separates the majority of modern work from enduring classics is the mastery and skill of language. There is a richness and depth to the command of language and syntax and vocabulary that writers of old employed so well. I think we have lost much of that…and I don’t think texting is helping either! 🙂 That is not to say that I don’t enjoy reading some modern works…but I agree. It seems to be a shallow diet if it becomes the majority of my reading and then I find myself craving something more substantial.

  11. Rachel says:

    I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on Outlander. Unlike the rest of the world, it seems, I was not a fan of that book and felt like I wasted my time and needed to take a really good bath and scrub my mind of some filthy images.

    I just love when literature causes me to really THINK about my life…not just daydream. So please for sure give us your thoughts after you’ve read the book!

    (You do always make me think. You are good literature 🙂 )

    • Anne says:

      Rachel, I don’t think you’re entirely alone. When I posted about Outlander on facebook a couple of weeks ago, a HUGE number of commenters said loud and clear: NOT FOR ME.

      • mary says:

        I really enjoyed the Outlander series ( or at least what I have read of it as I am still working through it). My only complaint is that in the earlier books (books 1-3), I find there is too much sexual content. But thankfully it lessens as you work your way through the series.
        Also I felt that the compelling aspects of the story were strong enough that I was able to look past this, something I am not able to do with other books.
        Be careful though, as if you end up liking the series, it can consume your life 🙂

  12. Interesting. I agree to some extent and I sort of go through phases. I also think that part of the issue is that modern fiction isn’t yet tested so we aren’t sure what quality books will stand the tests of time.

  13. Suzanne Watkins says:

    When it comes to literature or literary fiction, the 30 year rule will definitely lead you toward richer works. Not a guarantee, but definitely an aid. Contemporary fiction drives me crazy in large doses. Authors, and especially YA authors, tend to take a masterful plot, diverse characters with a TON of potential, and a setting that can be ridiculously engaging and ruin the whole thing by continuously using/misusing profanities and crude language that keep the characters and story shallow. Classics aren’t free of profanity, but it’s not the go-to for language, it’s sprinkled in and not relied upon to characterize. I’ve tried reading a good many of your more contemporary suggestions, and with the exception of a few (Guernsey to name one), many fall dismally in this area. I finish them, but am so disappointed that they never “leave the ground.”

  14. Arenda says:

    What interesting thoughts, Anne! I often feel the same way about modern novels – there’s a lack of depth that makes for unsatisfying reading.

    Reading “Tending the Heart of Virtue” by Vigen Guroian really solidified this in my mind; he speaks of our culture’s transition from virtue (something concrete that is transcendent) to values (something subjective and changeable depending on the person and his/her circumstances). There’s something lost when characters no longer strive after virtue.

    (Haley @ Carrots for Michaelmas just had a great post about virtue in Jane Austen, too, that you might be interested in: http://carrotsformichaelmas.com/2014/09/11/why-do-we-still-love-jane-austen/)

    And, re: the 30-year rule for university book lists – yes! I think that’s a given for English Lit classes, but even in science classes there’s still a place for reading original texts like the works of Gregor Mandel or Copernicus – and I imagine they make for much more interesting reading than the dull language found in today’s textbooks!

      • Arenda says:

        It’s a favourite of mine, even though I haven’t finished reading it. 🙂 The sub-title is “How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination” and it’s all about how and why fairy-tales are good for children. Quite fascinating.

    • Karlyne says:

      I was seriously impressed with Carrots for Michaelmas and her assertion that virtue is at the heart of Jane Austen’s heroes (and heroines). The Jane Austen book club on Goodreads is discussing Mansfield Park right now, and virtue is having a hard time being understood! Fanny is not only not understood, but comes close to being despised by several commentors, because, frankly, virtue is hard to understand and see and value in our culture. What would we be without Austen’s underpinnings of right conduct? No, wait, what would I be without it?!

      • Maria says:

        Thank you for that link, what an interesting thought. I added 2 books on virtue to my wishlist 🙂 The comments here on Modernmrsdarcy are often so inspirational. I really like that.

    • Steph J says:

      So I’m late the party here, but I read this post on Friday and it certainly gave me food for thought. I’ve been trying to read a few more modern books (10 yrs old or less), and one thing I’ve found a bit frustrating is that in each book the characters do something, well, ‘out of character.’ Something happens to the character, and I think I know how they’re going to respond…and they surprise me. It’s a bit unsettling. I’m not against unexpected twists in novels, but sometimes it seems like the ‘oh, you thought you knew this character, did you?’ feels like a bit of a cop out–a way to add interest to the novel without working too hard. In older books, when a character does something I wasn’t expecting, I feel like I can think back at what I knew of the character and realize that it really was in their character all along. I wonder if it would have something to do the values/virtues dichotomy mentioned here (I still need to read Haley’s post).

  15. Steph says:

    Yes! I think this is true of all art: literature, music, paintings, etc (I just wrote about how this relates to hymns vs contemporary music the other day). I love this quote from Rosalie de Rosset in Unseduced and Unshaken.

    “One of our great idolatries, yours and mine, comes from our loss of memory, of respect for the past; we become locked in the present moment, no longer able to judge and discern the good from the mediocre. We forget in the entertainment of the moment to bring with us the best of what God’s gifted men and women have given us, and to maintain a standard for what we will do now and in the future.”

  16. Megan says:

    Each reader should find the books that feed her best. I find that a satisfying book diet always includes variety (sort of a “read your colors” version of what we tell our kids about filling their plates). As a lifetime lover of books and a Ph.D. in English, I am respectfully suspicious of that “thirty-year rule.”

    • Beth says:

      I like the “eat your colors” guideline! I read both fiction and nonfiction, light and heavy, books for kids and books for adults. The best books I read tend to abide the “30 years rule” but if I only read those, I wouldn’t read at all – it would feel too overwhelming.

  17. Saskia says:

    Maybe literature classes. Maybe. But even then: some of the best academic classes I took were contemporary lit classes. Good books prove themselves, yes, but it’s okay to take a chance on newer books. (For example: the thirty year rule means you can’t assign a book dealing with 9/11. Is that an experience not worth discussing in class?) And as an academic myself: if your professor is assigning books that are all thirty years old, I’d think it means he hasn’t kept up with his/her scholarship and I’d take that as a sign to run for the hills. That goes more for scholarly works than for literature, but still.

  18. Melodee says:

    This was a great post. I have never read much contemporary fiction, but this summer I read several in a row. I was entertained; they were enjoyable, but after three or four I was craving something better. And yes, for me, that meant going older. What interests me is how some contemporary fiction is trying to be “deep” and it shows. It is trying too hard (“look at me! I’m deep!”) and thus seems only artificially deep instead of actually substantial. I often feel the same way about writing styles. Some really are “gorgeous” and some are just trying too hard and it’s painful.

    • Jen says:

      I totally agree! It is frustrating and annoying to read a book that feels like it’s trying to be complex instead of a book that just naturally is. I think I’m ready for something older and deeper, which is perfect since I just picked up Brideshead Revisited from the library- thanks to your repeated recommendations Anne. I can take a hint, eventually!
      This conversation makes me think of my favorite novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve read it maybe five or six times since middle school, and every time I get more and more out of it. I’ve been meaning to pull it out again because I haven’t read it since I became a mother, and I wonder how that might change the story for me.

      • Melodee says:

        To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my very favorites as well, and always repays a re-read. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts reading it as a mother–I once got my Dad to read it by telling him it was a novel about parenting. (It’s so much more of course, but I think that is a significant theme: Mr. Radley, Mr. Ewell, Dill’s parents, Atticus…)

  19. Kristen says:

    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.

    what an amazing way to put it. this is so true. every time I read P&P, I find something new to love, something new to giggle at, something I didn’t even pick up on last time. That doesn’t happen with modern fiction.

  20. Kayris says:

    I thought of a non science example.

    I enjoy most of Clive Cussler’s books. None of them are heavy reading, but I love the action and adventure, and he usually slips some history in there too.

    Two years ago I decided to start at the beginning and read his first series book by book. The very first books, published in the early 70s, had a lot of the attitudes towards women and gay people of the time that I found completely unpalatable. Like seriously offended.

    That said, I’ve read some crappy novels this year. Most of this years faves have all been YA fiction. Elizabeth Wein knows how to tear my heart out.

  21. Charyse H. says:

    I have always been a reader of modern fiction (Anne, Little House, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn notwithstanding). Until this past year, it hasn’t bothered me (except in children’s literature as discussed above). Recently, however, I’ve found myself yearning for richer literature. Perhaps it’s because I’ve started homeschooling my daughter and want to improve my own knowledge of rich literature and the world to be able to share with her? Perhaps it’s the fact that at 30 I’m not quite so selfish and shallow as I was at 20?

    I read “To Kill A Mockingbird” a few weeks ago for the first time. I’ve heard about this book my whole life but never known what it was about. I finally picked it up and couldn’t set it down. After two late nights I was hooked on classic literature!

  22. cindy says:

    What a great rule! I find myself going back to older books. Please tell me a bit about Crossing To Safety, I had my hands on it a few weeks back but purchased a different book instead. Thank you

  23. Jamie says:

    Interestingly, this post made me think about Bibles. I have a copy of the Geneva Bible (published circa 1560), which is the edition the Pilgrims used, and it has a depth and richness that I have never found in any other translation. (No offense intended to any other version – just my opinion!)

    Most modern translations, although they in theory say the same thing, simply cannot compare to the beauty of the older language and the way the word choices make you stop and really reflect on what you’re reading. It’s amazing how much we have lost as translations have been “dumbed down” to accommodate lower reading levels.

    I wonder some times if the difference has to do with the volume that people are expected to read. Modern readers have incredible access to books, go through them quickly, and are less likely to re-read them than our ancestors who would have had drastically less variety and spent a lot more time analyzing and reflecting on the few books they could get their hands on.

    Either way, interesting rule and good post!

    • Bethany says:

      Modern literature holds little appeal to me for the reasons Jamie has stated. Its seems to me that modern education and therefore modern writing has been “dumbed down.” I am currently reading Les Miserables and have fallen in love with the prose of a lost era. As someone else here has commented, classics such as Les Miserables, due to the depth of its writing style, prompts me to examine my life and not just daydream about it.
      I find this true with nonfiction as well. I love to read letters and journals from ages past – especially those of Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, etc. I find that the depth of their knowledge and ability to phrase words captivate me unlike most modern writings. Most current memoirs hold no comparison to what I consider the classics of memoirs – such as Witness by Whittaker Chambers. Very interesting post that has increased my recent hunger for the classics!

  24. Stephanie says:

    I totally sympathize with you!

    I belong to two bookgroups: one reads only classics (40 yr or older) and the other reads predominately contemporary novels, or even contemporary “literature” (the higher quality, more complex stuff). Recently someone in the classics bookgroup was tossing around the idea of reading the occasional contemporary book, and they asked me to name some of the books I’ve read with the other group that seemed worthy of attention.

    And do you know what? I’ve been with the contemporary group for 8 years but could only think of one or two books to name! Not because the others were unworthy or uninteresting, but they just don’t stick in my brain. (Sometimes I wonder if the fact that classics often use more complex sentence structure, as well as historic settings, different social norms etc., makes it a little more work to understand, but since you’ve done that extra work, you retain it more??)

    On the other hand, my husband’s colleague’s wife, who is French, recently asked me about good English-language classics that she could consider reading, and so many things popped to mind immediately: Edith Wharton, Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, Henry James, Willa Cather, George Elliot, Harper Lee, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, the Brontes, etc.

    These two experiences helped me realize that reading the classics has made me feel more educated! It’s wonderful, as someone mentioned, to finally read a book you’ve already heard of and see what it’s all about. I’ve loved the moments when I recognize what I thought was a modern thing in an old book (e.g., Melville’s little ode to getting away from it all, including media [newspapers, and “extras”], in Moby Dick).

    And another great thing about the classics is that so many people have read them over the years, I can find some in common to talk about with my older neighbor or our friend from Ireland, whereas the contemporary stuff is more hit or miss.

    Which is all to say, I find something to enjoy in most books that I pick up, but the classics, however defined, usually offer an extra richness…in my opinion. =)

      • Stephanie says:

        First, where not to begin: Ethan Frome and Summer are her “country” novels, and while Ethan Frome especially is a powerful story, most of her work is set in the high New York society in which she grew up (her father’s family are the Joneses in the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses”). So neither of those are stereotypical Whartons, though well worth a read.

        You might like to start with The Glimpses of the Moon, which is pretty lighthearted; The House of Mirth is darker but kept me guessing until the very last page. She won the Pulitzer in 1920, the first awarded to a woman, for The Age of Innocence. Everyone in my bookgroup loved that as well.

        I had never read any Edith Wharton until my bookgroup chose one of her titles. So glad we did! Hope you enjoy…

      • Stephanie says:

        Sorry for the delay–I wanted to go back and look over the lists of things we’ve read!

        The only thing that immediately sprang to mind was Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn (set just after World War II). I also remembered reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, though given its content I couldn’t recommend that to my classics group.

        Others that I recalled once I browsed the lists of years past were as follows:
        The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, Ann Packer
        Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
        A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (essays), David Foster Wallace
        Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See

        (Though I am still somewhat surprised at the number of book titles that I have no recollection of reading with my contemporary group, I should say, in defense of contemporary novels/literature, that this bookgroup meets primarily for social reasons: the books aren’t the main thing. So things are chosen by the hostess of the month and not always with great care.)

  25. Faith R says:

    I love how you said “it’s time to swing the pendulum back in the other direction.” I think that’s a good way to approach it. I was raised with an “older is better” snobbery and feel like it was kind of imbalanced. Of course a lot of people can be the opposite and declare “new is best”. I think a balanced person reads both. I think it is awesome that you can bring your classic thinking to modern literature, but it’s also really awesome to still be able to appreciate what is new. Like the person who enjoys Beethoven and Christina Perri, Carey Grant and Jude Law… I think we need both. We come to them each expecting different things but we need them both to be balanced.

  26. Virginia says:

    What an interesting rule!

    I have found that a lot of the books I’ve read lately were written in the mid 90s. Not on purpose, either. They’ve all be recommended and fabulous!

  27. Becca says:

    In terms of looking at a syllabus, it seems to me that one with predominantly older works might have riches in enduring legacy/theme/character/language, but would be shallow in terms of the perspectives presented. Classics-only lists tend to be light on female authors and authors of color.

  28. Ailsa says:

    Interesting! I don’t read much modern fiction, but enjoy reading your recommendations for ones to try. This Summer I read Brideshead Revisited, then two E.M. Forster books (Room with a View and Howard’s End) which I loved. Then I read the Rosie Project and, whilst I enjoyed it in the moment, left me feeling a bit empty! Sticking with the classics for now (Wives and Daughters); but there are modern writers I enjoy for their depth (Sebastian Faulks, A. S. Byatt, Barbara Kingsolver) so I’ll keep trying.

  29. Maggie says:

    Interesting post! I agree on a lot of points. While there are modern writers that I enjoy, there is so much depth in the classics. I’ve been reading David Copperfield lately and even though it’s gigantic, I find it is holding my attention more than a lot of more recent prose. I wonder if it’s because in the era of the classics, writers were less afraid of writing at a higher reading level. I mean, I’m a reader and have a wide vocabulary, but there are several words that I’ve found in David Copperfield alone that I had to look up. That never happens in modern prose, and not because all of Dickens’ language is antiquated.

    My dad writes white papers on psychology issues for an insurance company, and he has been frustrated by rules from superiors that they can ONLY reference work that is 5 years old or newer. He finds this really annoying because while there is obviously new research coming out, there are also seminal articles and books that everyone should read. You could say the same for History (my major). Yes, you should read the latest research, but you should also read the classic works on a subject, because there’s a reason why they have stood the test of time.

  30. Allison says:

    Really enjoy this conversation and your original post. I generally agree with the “30-year” rule (50 or 75 even?), although in this case I want to give a shout out to “The Lady Darby” mysteries by Anna Lee Huber. There are 3 so far: The Anatomist’s Wife, Mortal Arts and A Grave Matter. A fourth novel is due out next summer. All three mysteries are set in the 1830’s in Scotland, with a strong female lead character, a growing romance and, naturally, deaths to solve. What’s not to love? There’s no foul language, no “bodice ripper” stuff, and the writing is EXCELLENT. These are wonderful page-turners that have been written in the past few years. STRONGLY RECOMMEND if you are into Agatha Christie-type mysteries or loved “Nancy Drew” when you were growing up!

    Otherwise, fiction books especially, but even much of contemporary lit–biographies, non-fiction etc., needs to have a chance to age like wine. That which is good will only become better with time. That which is not will be shown for what it is–rancid, poor quality and will be forgotten quickly. Why should we waste our time on what is worthless? Let’s fill our minds with the BEST, no matter what genre it is!!

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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. 🙂

  34. 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.

  35. 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.

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

  38. 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.

  39. 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.

  40. 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.

  41. 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. 🙂

  42. 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?

  43. 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.)

  44. 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?

  45. 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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