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.
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.