One fifth of the books I review on my site were published between 1974 and 1981. Others are of a more recent but still venerable vintage. Why, in a world where each passing day sees another wave of new books, would anyone bother with older fiction? Given that staying current with any genre is a Red Queen’s Race, time devoted to older works means falling behind at keeping abreast of recent works… so why bother?
Here are—can you guess the number?—at least five sufficient reasons, even leaving aside “because I want to.”
As more books are published than any human can possibly read, failure to stay one hundred percent up to date is guaranteed. Reading classic works is at best simply one of many factors ensuring that there will always be worthy recent books to which one will never find time to read. Dreading the inevitable is a misallocation of cognitive resources, producing stress without constructive results. Reading old books—or at least doing so while accepting the logical implications regarding more recent books—could be one step towards achieving personal tranquility.
Because I already own the books in question. Reading books within arm’s reach demands neither funds nor the time to track down and purchase new books. Even new ebooks, as close to instant gratification as one is likely to find, require one to find a seller, purchase the book, download a copy, correct the metadata, select which of various available covers one wants poorly reproduced on one’s eReader, convert to an appropriate format, and finally, load it onto an eReader. Whereas the books and ebooks in the collection I have assembled over the last half century are never more than a whim away.
On occasion, the element drawing one to a particular vintage work isn’t necessarily the work itself, but the memories associated with reading the book. Thus, the roleplaying game Universe will always be linked in my memory with a pleasant afternoon spent on Mount Tamalpais, Clarke’s Childhood’s End with certain implications of relativity, and The Space Skimmer with the day I discovered a quiet spot at Waterloo Oxford District Secondary School of which no other student was aware, a space into which I could vanish whenever I had a spare moment.
Sometimes the associations are so particular to a specific person they cannot be coherently conveyed even to the author of the book in question. Nevertheless, they can be summoned with a reread.
Fourth: Remembrance of Things Past
Publishing is an ever-evolving field. Many elements fall out of fashion. Therefore, if one craves some parameter no longer of interest to modern authors or their publishers, there’s little point to looking for it in modern works. However, thanks to paper’s durability or previously saved ebooks, the older books can still scratch vintage itches.
Take novel length, for example. There’s a lot to be said for short novels, but for various reasons modern Anglophone SF novels are likely to be around 100,000 to 120,000 words. Fantasy books tend to be even longer. The realities of the modern market dictate that if what I crave is a book I can read over the course of a couple of commutes, the best option might be some work published half a century ago.
As well, books already read offer comfortable predictability. If one wants a particular reading experience, success is assured if one has already read the book in question.
Older works can cast unexpected light on modern works. By reading classics, one may find that one better appreciates recent books. For example, Gardener Dozois’ The Year’s Best Science Fiction belongs to the same structural lineage as Judith Merril’s The Year’s Best SF and Lester del Rey’s Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year, sharing features not found in other Best SF annuals. However, this is obvious only if one actually reads the Merril and del Rey anthologies.
Of course, there may well be as many or more justifiable reasons to read an older book as there are readers of older books. These are just the five reasons most important to me. If you’re a reader of vintage fantasy and science fiction, feel free to explain why in comments below.
In the words of fanfiction author Musty181, four-time Hugo finalist, prolific book reviewer, and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll “looks like a default mii with glasses.” His work has appeared in Interzone, Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis) and the 2021, 2022, and 2023 Aurora Award finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by web person Adrienne L. Travis). His Patreon can be found here.