My long-term project (probably years long, the way I’m going) is to read all the books on the bookshelves in my office and then afterwards, move them, and eventually the shelves, out of the house. I’m going to need the space for other things.
The first book I assigned myself was a Virago Modern Classics reprint. These are books by female authors, originally published at other houses, some from many decades previously. Virago has published its Modern Classics imprint since the 1970s, and the [many] books I own are all from this period. So far, they’ve been rather hit-or-miss in terms of how well they’ve held up to #MeToo and #TimesUp sensibilities.
My least favorite of the Virago reprints so far is a book by the English novelist Elizabeth Taylor (1912–1975). She was well-known and well-regarded; her 1971 novel Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
The novel I owned was In a Summer Season, published in 1961. I couldn’t get through it. The characters were stilted, artificial, and tiresome. They smoked cigarettes and drove their motorcars and dressed for dinner; they married the wrong people and carried on with different wrong people. On Amazon, people either loved this book, or they or they hated it. One depressing thing about reading the Amazon reviews is that all the people who loved it said it was “intelligent.” So you see where that leaves me.
After I put the Taylor novel in the bag to Goodwill, I read The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett, which is a spy story set in Egypt in 1942 and published in 1980. I thought it held up remarkably well. There’s definitely a racist tone when the white British characters refer to Egyptians, but the women have agency and power, although it’s often sexual power. The British Army captain hero marries an Egyptian Jew who made her living for several years as a serially kept woman. So there’s that.
I’ve been thinking about what keeps a book fresh over the years, because I’ve been fretting about two police procedurals that I wrote seven years ago. The plot of the first one involves the theft of American national elections by Chinese computer hackers. At the time I wrote that book, I was working for a computer trade magazine. I had authors who could have committed this crime had they wanted to, so I got good tech advice and, generally speaking, was happy with the book when I finished.
But when I pitched it to agents and editors, I could barely get the word “computer” out of my mouth before they told me to forget it. Computer books get stale, they said. In six months, this will all be old news. Nothing ages faster than a computer.
In vain did I say that it wasn’t about the 486, it was about stealing elections. But they weren’t having any of it.
I’m now writing the third book in the series. I’m having trouble with it, so I decided that before I went any further, I’d reread these first two and see if they held up okay. If they were hopelessly dated, as the agents and editors warned me they would be, I could just quit while I was ahead.
Rather to my surprise, they’re not really out-of-date. I was right: They aren’t about the 486 or what makes a computer run, although there are moments that might amuse an expert. However, the book really is about stealing elections. And we’re still reading about that in the news today, so hey. Still fresh.
So how about you? Have you given any thought to keeping your books evergreen? Do old-fashioned writing, concepts, or assumptions ever grate on you so bad you can’t go on? Or have you recently read a book from some time ago that felt as fresh as yesterday? Examples, please!
I’m sorry, I read the bit about reading books and then getting rid of them and the shelves and had to go lie down for a bit to recover. 😊
I can’t, right this minute think of an “ever fresh” book, but I would think staying away from details that are very period specific would be key. Also, like on your story, focusing on plot and general Computer-stuff, rather than the 486 or a specific programs would keep it from feeling dated.
In a book I just read recently, the characters were using Blackberry mobile devices, which felt so yesterday. Fortunately, it was a minuscule part of the story so I could just mentally upgrade them to iPhones and go on.
I wonder if we read the same book? I ran across a mention of a BlackBerry recently, and I must confess that it sort of amused me. Long ago, my boss got one and bragged about it all over the place. Now it would be a doorstop.
I’m sorry to shock you about the bookshelves. Eventually the office will have to become a bedroom, and there won’t be room for the books. But there is still a bookshelf elsewhere. Everything will be fine. You’ll see.
I’m reading a bunch of Dorothy Parker’s theater reviews right now, and that’s FRESH. That woman was born fresh, I swear. It’s amazing that not only is her language crisp and modern (she was writing these reviews almost exactly 100 years ago!), but a lot of her concerns are ones we still worry about. Just this morning, I was reading her lament about the lack of good roles for Negro actors. I think this was in connection to Emperor Jones, which had a great part for a black man.
I think the best we can do is follow our interests and stick to our voices, and let history judge whether we are fresh enough or not. (-: You were ahead of your time, and it’s just lucky that you’ve lived long enough that you can bring some of these stories out of storage and dust the suckers off.
(BTW, the music around 1919 just generally sucks. Several of the songs from musicals that Dorothy mentions as being popular are on YouTube, and it’s very hard to distinguish one from the other.)
By the way, a lot of the stuff Dorothy talks about wasn’t very fresh, even when she reviewed it — cliched content was a constant complaint of hers. A lot of the names have been lost to our memory banks. But there are a few who stand out — Wodehouse, Shaw . . . George Cohan. If people could have bottled Dorothy and let her out now . . . well, let’s just say I’m enjoying a whiff of her. Invigorating stuff!
Oh, I love Dorothy Parker, and you’re right––-she still feels completely modern. One of the things she said that I use all the time is, “What fresh hell is this?” when the phone rings. It’s just so true. However, when she wrote in a review that Katherine Hepburn ran the gamut of emotions from A to B, I’m not so sure that was true. But then, I didn’t see the play.
I’m glad you’re enjoying the reviews. Maybe I should look up a few. Parker was often so acerbic, she’s like a breath of fresh air. She had her self-pitying side, too, but I remember her for her sharp wit.
I remember going through a big compendium of her short stories and reviews and poetry. Her poetry is pretty good in small doses, but it does get awfully dreary in large doses.
The book of reviews was *Dorothy Parker: Complete Broadway 1919-1923* according to the banner on my Kindle. It really is quite good, and not just for the wit, but for the story analysis as well.
Thanks for the reference!
“One more drink and I’ll be under the host.”
“If all the sweet young things at this party were laid end-to-end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”
Ha! I hadn’t heard that second one. Maybe it’s time I went to the library…
“To me, *Daddies* was not particularly stirring as an appeal for the orphans of war; but, as a propaganda for birth control, it was extraordinarily effective.” (*Daddies* was a play about three bachelors who suddenly find themselves fathers to a bunch of WWI orphans.)
Several years ago I read ‘Cry of the Owl’ by Patricia Highsmith, published by Virago, having seen the film on TV. I found the writing style old fashioned and heavy going and much preferred the modern film adaption.
I guess writing about things considered out of date is fine if the writer is deliberately setting the story in a period of time, even a more recent one. (Not sure how old something has to be before it’s considered period writing/drama, maybe 20/30 years?) The other option is for an indie author to constantly update their publications ie changing blackberries to smartphones, platform heels to stilettos (I’m writing about the latter at present), and so on. Things seem to date so quickly these days!
Everything does date really fast these days, you’re so right! When I was reading the Ken Follett book, written in 1980 but placed in 1942, I remember thinking that the story was wearing better because of its historical setting; learning something about Rommel was carrying me forward as much as the spy plot was.
I’ve read most of Patricia Highsmith, but none of it recently. I enjoyed it all at the time, but I wonder what I’d think now? I bet I still have some of her books on these very shelves; I think I’ll check her out next.
Back in the early 2000’s I wrote a romantic suspense that referenced a lot of then whiz-bang tech. It has not stood up well to the passing of time.
On the other hand, when I watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes from the late 90’s and early 2000’s, I’m barely aware of the technological changes. (Except cell phones. All those kids would have cell phones.)
It sounds like you did a brilliant job of writing about a topic that could have been tech-heavy without actually making it so.
(And I hear you about the bookshelves. I plan to one day turn my 9 1/2′ by 11′ writing cave into a first floor bedroom. It’s lined with bookcases, but they’re 4 1/2′ off the ground, so they can stay. I may even be able to reach all kinds of books without having to get out of bed. 🙂
Or maybe I’ll install one of those seats that zips you up the stairs. That sounds like even more fun than being surrounded by overhead books.
I’d be a little alarmed about overhead books, but then, I live in earthquake country, so what do I know? Those seats that zip you upstairs might be a better option simply just because you wouldn’t have to do anything with your books except enjoy them.
I’m not sure I did a brilliant job with that police procedural, but I think it’s still readable, so whew! for that. I did delete one paragraph that been my stroke of genius at the time, but now I think it sounded silly and probably seven years out of date. I decided that fell within the guidelines of “minor revisions” rather than “second edition,” so we’re just carrying on with it.
Oh my goodness, it has been my plan (for the last 5 years) to work through all the books I have on my shelves. As I am not the faster reader, one a month is probably my limit I sometimes feel like I will never get through them. Fortunately I have a colour coded spreadsheet – sad but glorious to look back on, and remind myself of all the books I have already enjoyed once they have left the shelf forever.
A color-coded spreadsheet is remarkable! I’d never have the oomph to do that, which is a pity, because I’ve often started a book I’ve read before and don’t realize it until I’m two-thirds of the way through, by which time I remember the ending. On the upside, although I have four bookshelves that I need to clear, two of them are fairly small, and none of them is jammed end-to-end books. I have some athletic trophies in there, a piggy bank, a candy dish (very important), and a box of reading glasses, among other objects. But still, it’s a lot of books. And it’s slow going for me, too. I’m giving my self ten years. 🙂
Well Kay Keppler, according to Goodreads (lol) it counts as a read even if it is the second or third time. The worst thing for me, is that I have a terrible memory, and I read really fast, more like scanning, so the second I read a book whoosh it’s gone. At my old book group I could never remember the characters names, and I could see them thinking – she didn’t even read the book….
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