I have sufficient books on hand (paper and ebook) that I cannot possibly re-read them all in my remaining lifespan. Surrounded as I am by old friends, why even consider buying new books, let alone reading them?
It may not surprise you to know that—as with the question of why to read old books—I can think of at least five reasons.
First: while it’s true old favorites may reveal new nuances on re-read … I have already read them. Predictability may be comforting but it can bore as well, particularly for what one might diplomatically call the less ambitious speculative fiction works of bygone days.
Second: older books were more limited in scope in many ways than modern books. There are far more books published each year than there were when I first encountered speculative fiction. Science fiction and fantasy, no longer seen primarily as a juvenile genre, tackle a far vaster range of subjects. The authors draw from a more inclusive community of authors. New books can provide reading experiences that older books never could. Plus, familiar books cannot deliver the anticipation one feels unboxing a brand-new treasure.
A very James-specific example: I was very pleased to realize in 2011 that there were enough new books set in the Solar System that I could be choosy about which ones I read. There was a long stretch, starting roughly about the time that space probes revealed what the other planets were actually like, when new books set in the Solar System were rare enough that one could not be selective.
Third: new books are part of a long-term conversation between authors over generations. It would be a pity to turn one’s back on that.
Fourth: buying new books funds their authors, thus avoiding the lamentable prospect of hungry, homeless SFF authors. This may not be important to you, but I assure you it is important to the authors. Also, genres whose readers limit themselves to older works by older authors can very easily dwindle to a shadow of their former selves. Don’t believe me? Westerns used to be a thriving genre. There used to be a thriving genre of space-based SF aimed at young adults. If you want there to be an SFF of tomorrow, you’d better engage with the SFF of today.
Fifth: there is no swifter route to becoming a tedious coot than stagnation. The world is filled with people who have seemingly decided that nothing after some arbitrary year (generally, whenever they became a chronological adult) is interesting or worth engaging with. No doubt there’s something comforting about being a living fossil. If there weren’t, there would not be so many people who chose this path. Nevertheless, I disagree with that perspective. Life is too short to do the same thing over and over.
Those are the first five reasons that come to mind. No doubt many of you have your own, equally convincing. Feel free to regale us with them 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.