Wince-Inducing Literature: Dealing with Dated Perspectives in Older Books

I love reading books that were written way before my time. People constantly describe books as portals to other worlds (bet you’ve heard that a million times), and I have found that the best books for experiencing that sensation are older books grounded in real history, without any fantastical trappings. You get a glimpse of how people who have died years ago used to speak, used to act. You can make comparisons, draw sharp contrasts.

Fantasy and science fiction books are great, too. I’m not saying they suck eggs or anything like that. (Sci-fi is my jam!) Finely crafted fictional worlds are engrossing. But it’s difficult to beat a story that is grounded in a distant reality and that seems simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar in its themes.

I mean, come on, who hasn’t read Pride & Prejudice and snorted over what used to pass for flirting back then?

Books like Anna Karenina or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man give you so much insight into people, what’s remained constant and what’s changed. I never really get “lost” in those kinds of books; I get found.

Side note: I swear, that’s as corny as I’ll get in this post.

Unfortunately, there can be passages in these books that slap you in the face and remind you that the past wasn’t always pretty and idyllic. These moments can shatter your immersion and take you out of that blissful self-actualization session you were just having.

About a month ago, I was reading a collection of pieces by the author Washington Irving. You might know him as the guy who gave us the stories of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

I first discovered him in middle school. And damn, let me tell you, son, he used descriptive language like Leonardo Da Vinci used a paint brush. I could sink into his paragraphs describing the natural beauty of a moonlit night in post-colonial America. I love dialogue and action and all that jazz, but Irving ensnared me with his flourishing descriptions. I never thought I would drool over how dusk is described.

Anyway, I was reading some of Irving’s work (I had bought a collection of his essays and short stories), when I came upon an essay that described the condition of Native Americans in those times. I hadn’t even finished the first paragraph of this essay before I had to stop reading and go splash my face with the cold water of repugnance.

At the time of Irving’s writing, Native Americans were being forcibly ejected from their homelands by encroaching settlers. Irving was intensely sympathetic to their plight, but his sympathy was tinged with this casual disdain. His attitude was a total case of “don’t be mean to them for they are just poor, ignorant savages.” He even freakin’ used the word “savages” more than once.

Ick.

I felt guilty simply for having purchased Irving’s book. No stunning descriptive language could save the esteem I used to hold Irving in.

Older books (and some current ones too, now that I think about it) can make you wince in abhorrence over how out-of-touch and dismissively cruel they can be. Like children raised by bigots, they are wretched products of their time.

Take Gone with the Wind, for instance.

It’s pretty well-written in terms of prose, but its views on slavery are cringe-inducing, face-palm-producing, and enraging all at the same time. But at least with an infamous work like that, you kind of know what you’re getting yourself into. I mean, with a protagonist born and raised in the South, Margaret Mitchell was hardly going to make slavery appear to be as horrendous as it actually was.

It can be hard to continue reading something that shocks your values in such a way. I know it was for me after I finally finished Irving’s disquieting essay. You feel sullied for just having read the thing, and you may begin to worry that all your favorite authors have a close-minded skeleton in their closet as well.

What’s important to remember is that what you read and what you learn from what you read are two different things. No matter what form literature takes, it is all about perspective and understanding. Books are bridges that help us make connections. Sometimes that connection is to the author and his/her point of view. Other times, it is a connection to free-thinking and a difference in opinion. (Does that make sense?)

Irving was a different person from me, who lived in a different time and at a different place. Despite the fact that I can hold his words in my hands, we are still worlds apart. So while he can teach me a thing or two about how to use descriptive language, he can also teach me what not to do when it comes to perceiving and approaching other human beings.

So to ye who would read ye olde books, be mindful of what you’re getting yourself into.

Side note: Did you know that “ye” is both a plural form of “thou” and an antiquated version of “the?”

5 thoughts on “Wince-Inducing Literature: Dealing with Dated Perspectives in Older Books”

  1. This is an interesting point. I was watching Friends recently and found myself surprised at the show making fun of a guy kissing another guy… like it was the most embasrassing thing ever. Just a sign of the times I guess. I wasn’t surprised when I watched it when it was new… but going back to it in today’s climate… I don’t know. It felt surprisingly dated.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really like reading books from other times as well. But yeah of course it can be difficult reading some of these. I can really relate on gone with the wind (I reviewed that really recently, so it’s fresh in my mind). I think how you summed it up at the end is perfect- it’s important to read these and see them as examples of how *not to* treat other human beings.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s