More on Reading Older Books In Light of Present Standards
In response to my recent blog on the Dr. Seuss kerfuffle and my suggestion that it may be time for a strategic withdrawal from the culture wars, reader Dave Regnier sent a really lovely and helpful piece about such matters from a teacher of writing. In a 2019 essay, Brian Morton reflected on an encounter with a student, and would-be novelist, on a train. The student had said he tossed Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth in the circular file after coming upon a depiction that was anti-semitic. Here’s Morton:
“Anyone who’s taught literature in a college or university lately has probably had a conversation like this. The passion for social justice that many students feel — a beautiful passion for social justice — leads them to be keenly aware of the distasteful opinions held by many writers of earlier generations. When they discover the anti-Semitism of Wharton or Dostoyevsky, the racism of Walt Whitman or Joseph Conrad, the sexism of Ernest Hemingway or Richard Wright, the class snobbery of E. M. Forster or Virginia Woolf, not all of them express their repugnance as dramatically as the student I talked to, but many perform an equivalent exercise, dumping the offending books into a trash basket in their imaginations.”
I admire Morton’s empathy for the student and for his, “beautiful passion for social justice.”
Earlier in their conversation Morton had asked the student, who shared that he was at work on a novel of his own, what it was about. “Time travel,” said the student.
After their conversation concluded, Morton mused to himself that “time travel” might be one way to think about reading older books that don’t quite measure up to present standards or sensitivities.
“It was only after the student left the train that I had the rather obvious thought that an old book is a kind of time machine too. And it struck me that the way he’d responded to “The House of Mirth” betrayed a misunderstanding of what kind of time machine an old book is.
“I think it’s a general misunderstanding, not just his. It’s as if we imagine an old book to be a time machine that brings the writer to us. We buy a book and take it home, and the writer appears before us, asking to be admitted into our company. If we find that the writer’s views are ethnocentric or sexist or racist, we reject the application, and we bar his or her entry into the present.
“As the student had put it, I don’t want anyone like that in my house.
“I think we’d all be better readers if we realized that it isn’t the writer who’s the time traveler. It’s the reader. When we pick up an old novel, we’re not bringing the novelist into our world and deciding whether he or she is enlightened enough to belong here; we’re journeying into the novelist’s world and taking a look around.”
and a bit further on in Morton’s essay . . .
“When we imagine that writers from the past are visiting our world, it subtly reinforces our complacence, our tendency to believe that the efforts at moral improvement made by earlier generations attained their climax, their fulfillment, their perfection, in us. The idea that we are the ones who are doing the time-traveling doesn’t carry the same implication.
“If, whenever we open old books, we understand from the get-go that their authors have motes in their eyes regarding important ethical or political questions, it might help us understand that the same thing could be said of us today.”
I encourage you to use the link to read Morton’s whole essay, and again, thank you Dave Regnier for sharing it with us. I add several comments from my perspective.
Again, I admire Morton’s gentleness with the student. I, at least, could be pretty cocksure and arrogant at that time in my life.
Second, the point Morton makes applies to reading the Bible. I had to learn this as a seminarian and would-be preacher. Instead of coming to a biblical text to see what would be appealing to me or of use to me, I had to learn to suspend my own agendas and ask, “What is this text saying in its context?” I had to learn to let the text, as it were, speak, without me constantly interrupting.
And third, and I may follow-up on this with a further bit of reflection in a subsequent blog, but it seems to me that making ourselves and our point in history the judge and jury is, in some ways, a terrible burden. To bring that thought into the realm of faith, I find that we moderns take our subjectivities too seriously. We think the question is, “Do I believe in God?” I spent a lot of time down that rabbit hole. But maybe the real question is, “Does God believe in us?”