Why we shouldn’t shy away from reading the past

Socially acceptable attitudes and actions change over time. The changes build under the surface, and every so often there’s what seems to be a large shift (there’s one happening now with Black Lives Matter, and there was the whole MeToo thing a few years ago). When these large shifts in culture happen, it’s natural to reassess not only what is around at the moment, but also what happened in the past.

Many of the books read today were written many years ago, by writers who lived at different times. So how should we react when their sensibilities differ from our own?

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First, I think it’s important to separate the book from the writer. Most stories are written primarily to entertain, so does it matter what the writer was like as a person? Should we discard works created by those we disagree with, or those whose views sit uncomfortably against our modern sensibilities?

I think this is a personal decision. If your feelings about the writer are so strong that it’s impossible for you to dissociate their work from their personality, then why put yourself through the discomfort? But if you can separate the story from the person behind it, is there any problem with still reading it?

But what if the content of the story is problematic? What if there is racism or sexism or any other prejudice in the words?

One thing to note here is that attitudes expressed (or shown) through characters’ words and actions are not necessarily those shared by the writer. Any story needs its protagonist, so there are always going to be characters we don’t like, those we want the hero to overcome. And then there are those books that actively explore prejudice, that display a variety of attitudes in order to encourage the reader to think about their own beliefs. There’s racism in To Kill A Mockingbird, but that doesn’t make the book itself racist.

So the words should be read in context.

This still leaves problems. Some (especially older) books have their heroes displaying attitudes we no longer find acceptable. There are books with throwaway lines that are, by today’s standard, deemed offensive.

I’ve heard some people suggest editing older books to suit modern audiences‌—‌but I don’t agree with this. There’s a line by philosopher George Santayana (often wrongly attributed to Churchill):

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

There’s a danger of erasing or amending the past‌—‌it gives us a false view of history. We risk losing context for where we are now.

And there’s that word again‌—‌context. This, I believe, is key to the whole issue.

The attitudes displayed in these books might be wrong by today’s standards, but they weren’t necessarily seen that way when the writer was working on the story. The attitudes and beliefs of a writer will creep into even the most escapist of fiction, even if unconsciously‌—‌in the use of certain words, or the portrayal of characters who are ‘different’ to the author (race, culture, gender, sexuality, age, whatever). Is this the ‘fault’ of the writer, or their society?

When we read books, especially ones written decades (or centuries) ago, we need to remember they come from a different place, a different time.

Doing this not only gives us permission to enjoy the book for its merits, but it also educates us. The taboo words bandied around without a care, the prejudice on display‌—‌these things show us how we’ve changed.

And that leads to something else‌—‌the realisation that things aren’t perfect today, that change is still happening. The past shouldn’t be airbrushed and forgotten, but should serve as encouragement to keep improving.

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