Out With the Old

In with the new 

It’s not always a good thing, to sweep out the old with a clean broom and throw open the shutters to let the light come streaming in.

Let me explain.

No, let me show you.

Some of the old books I just acquired.

You see, I had a gay old time at the used bookstore recently. I came home with quite the haul, to the First Reader’s dismay, but he’s a thoroughly modern husband, so he just let me show off my finds. There was no yelling or beating, or even finger-wagging at his naughty wife.  Besides, most of them were presents for him. Admittedly, one was a gag gift, since he confessed he’d never read a Tom Swift.

And of course, proud collector that I am, I showed them off on Facebook. Which is where I got a comment that rather took me aback.

“Oh, you got one of the old Tom Swift’s! The racist, sexist ones.” 

Um. Y’know, I was a girl, once. And I happily read Tom Swift, although I liked Danny Dunn and Encyclopedia Brown better (detectives, you know). In fact, I could easily daydream myself into those boys shoes to have adventures, and did so. I never stopped to contemplate that I couldn’t do that because *GASP* they were boys and I was a girl. If I wanted to do science and solve mysteries, I jolly well was going to go ahead and do so! And here I stand today with a degree in Forensic Science. No one said I couldn’t do that, either.

So, sexist? Not in my memory, but it’s been a while, granted. I mean, I was a mere slip of a girl, and therefore not fit to judge for myself. Can women really think independently? Or must they all be spoon-fed the feminism mantras? 

Racist? I have a deep and abiding fascination with the Sub-Continent, due in no small part to my introduction to it through Kim, Rudyard Kipling’s tale of a boy growing to manhood there. I don’t recall thinking any less of the Indian characters than the British ones – Kipling treats them all with the same rough humor. Read Gunga Din, sometime (or listen, at that link).

Only… don’t filter it through the prism of modern thinking. 

I know, I know, it’s a radical suggestion. There are quarters where I would be verbally flogged for suggesting such a thing. The same quarters which praise Harris’s defense of infanticide in Cannibals and Kings, and scold those of us who recoil for being guilty of cultural relativism and comparing our morals to theirs, with theirs coming out on the short end of the stick. But in order to understand where we are now, we must retain an understanding of where we came from.

I’m not saying that our journey should double back on itself. I am rather fond of being able to vote for the lesser of two weevils in the elections, for instance. Even if my vote doesn’t carry much weight, it’s mine. I am saying that history repeats itself, and without a map, how do we know if we’re driving in circles? 

I bought my beloved a gift of ten – no, eleven, but one’s not in the set – H Rider Haggard books. Obscure titles, too. Peter Grant was talking about Haggard recently, and I enjoy his stuff, but the First Reader either hadn’t read any, or it had been a long time. He was surprised at how much fantasy there is in the old Pulp Adventure books. We live in a deeply fantastical era, where people are more apt to rely on their feelings and emotions than they are on facts and data – just like the seers and sorceresses committing atrocities in Haggard’s tales of dark Africa and darker souls.

So what am I saying? I’m saying to keep an open mind, and read the old books. Even the ones that have been tarred as racist and sexist and whateverist. And don’t just read them yourself. Find them on Project Gutenberg and suggest them to the young readers you know. Then talk about what they read. Because likely they will have just had an education they weren’t expecting. Sweeping out the past has the regrettable effect of making the present look as though it sprang spotless into the world, but it has all it’s own shadows and blemishes and corruptions softly creeping into the books.

36 Comments

Filed under CEDAR SANDERSON, reading

36 responses to “Out With the Old

  1. Draven

    why, some of those old books are even *cringes* CAPITALIST!

  2. paladin3001

    Love those old style covers of books. Had a bunch like that that were my parents that managed to survive my childhood reading, not my moves though.

    • I love beautiful old books. Being able to photograph them and make them look good for this post was a pleasure. I may print a couple of these images.

    • I had the exact same thought. These old covers are both timeless and reach out, wanting to be read.

      *jealous*

      The oldest book in my library is a Complete Works of Byron (including all the letters… the man never shut up!!. ~700 pages in 4 point type) from ~1840. It bears a handwritten inscription from 1845, having apparently been a family gift. I looked up the name and lo and behold, the same family still lives in Boston.

      • I like looking for old books, and when I saw some at a yard sale, I stopped to take a look. None of them were what I’d call really old. One of the oldest was a KJV bible, and looked to be from the fifties.

        Old bibles like this give me a funny feeling, for, whatever reason, it usually means a family didn’t want to keep it. Still, out of curiosity, I picked it up, opened it – and found it had once belonged to a cousin.

        After getting over the initial surprise, I read the inscription. It was a Christmas gift from from his father and mother, and was apparently his first full bible.

        Bought it, of course. Contacted him and asked if he wanted it. He did, and was thrilled. He never knew what happened to that bible. How it ended up at a yard sale of someone who wasn’t even distant kin is anyone’s guess.

  3. Oh, this all sounds so familiar. My wife and I are both book hoarders and one day I fear that there will be an earthquake and that will be our demise…buried in books.

    I can’t think of a better way to go. Death by literature.

  4. BobtheRegisterredFool

    Wait, why not just scold as racist anyone who objects to a defense of mass murder as a legitimate part of this complete foreign policy?

    Why a reasoned defense of considering a multiplicity of viewpoints and not just discarding as alien the ones that are inconvenient to the mainstream political establishment?

    Why try to honestly engage in discussion about fully understanding different mindsets?

  5. Oh wow! What a haul! And I would LOVE to get my hands on old edition books. There’s something about old books like those old hardbounds that I like. They seem to have personality…

  6. Like someone who once informed me that Kipling’s “Fuzzy-Wuzzy” was racist and demeaning to African-Americans. http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/poems_fuzzywuzzy.htm

    Think about that. The individual claimed to have read that poem.

    There are not enough face-palms for that kind of willful blindness.

    • TRX

      Earl Derr Biggers created the character “Charlie Chan,” more famous from the movies than his books.

      There are several web sites that go into detail about how Biggers’ character was insulting and demeaning to Chinese.

      Yes. Chan was famous, independently wealthy, he had a stable marriage and a dozen children, and the respect of his peers worldwide.

      My Privilege is so deep I can’t figure out what the problem is…

  7. Rey Brandt

    I introduced my daughter to the Just So stories at age 5 or so. In her 30’s now so I suppose I have perpetuated racist thought to another generation. Seems not to have worked very well as she has a peculiar lack of caring about how people look but will look closely at how they act and treat others.

  8. “…the seers and sorceresses committing atrocities in Haggard’s tales of dark Africa and darker souls…”

    Per the accounts coming out of present-day South Africa, Haggard appears to have greatly understated the atrocities.

  9. *snort* oh the poor deluded fools who say such cringingly, willfully stupid SHIT! They are half assed dictatorial little stalin wanna be’s. I’ve got no use for them except for fertilizer because unlike them I’ve actually READ most of the works they bitch loudest about and enjoy the old fiction stuff. I’ve also read waaaay more history than them. so I know how their delusions of adequacy end. In fire and blood. MORONS!

  10. “Oh, you got one of the old Tom Swift’s! The racist, sexist ones.”

    Yeah, that would be one of the same people who called Brad Torgersen a racist. They think that every single white person alive right now is a racist. The authors of the past were super duper racist!

    That’s how we get the IDIOCY of H.P. Lovecraft being denounced and memory-holed by the eager fools who want to make everything in the world Progressive.

    Progress, my friends! Onward, to Utopia! Except they’ve apparently given up on Utopia, and have settled for Dystopia. Bring it all down, burn the rubble, and let Gaia smooth over the Scars of Man.

    I’m quite happy being a racist/bigot/homophobe, clinging to my guns and religion. I’m a Klingon. Nice thing about being a Klingon, when they come to burn it all down, I have something to say about it.

  11. Christopher M. Chupik

    Looking through the top 100 in the SF Anthologies and Short Stories category on Amazon, I see Edgar Rice Burroughs, Andre Norton, Ray Bradbury, H. Beam Piper, A Merritt and a few weeks back C L Moore and Leigh Brackett were there too. Take that as you will.

  12. I was told a few years back that Encyclopedia Brown was sexist in an offhand way and didn’t bother to challenge the speaker because it had been a couple decades since I’d read them so while I couldn’t remember any kind of sexism that didn’t mean there wasn’t any. Then I dug a few of them up and read them again and found there wasn’t any that I could see.

    Encyclopedia Brown never talked down to anyone, no manspreading that I could see was going on, the worst I could see was there was a slight old-fashionedness to the gentleness and deference with which the girl characters were treated. However, the age that the characters were (around 10 to 12) made that seem more real than the alternative. Now, that could have changed since the books were written, but generally boys had boys for friends and girls had girls for friends back then (and judging by my nieces and nephew I’d say that’s relatively still the same but that’s anecdotal, not evidentiary).

    Boiling it down; I couldn’t figure out what the speaker was talking about so I went to the final resort and asked. The answer?

    Encyclopedia Brown was smarter than the girl characters. That was sexist in her opinion.

    Never mind that he was also smarter than the adult characters. Never mind that the reason he was the star of the book was that he was extremely smart. No, it was insulting to women that he wasn’t bowing down to the superior intelligence of girls.

    How can one argue with that nonsense? Honestly, I just laughed and shook my head. There was nothing there to argue against because what she had seen wasn’t evidence of misogyny, but evidence of her own misandry (her unconscious bias said that no boys could possibly be smarter than girls), and the misandry of modern day children’s books wherein it is pretty well a given that if you have a smart boy you have to show a smart girl who is clearly actually smarter than him.

    Steve

    • Zsuzsa

      Well, I suppose you could say that it’s because of Sally–she’s supposed to be almost as smart as Encyclopedia but except for her first appearance pretty much never shows it. Then again, given that everyone in Idaville except for Encyclopedia is a drooling moron (“That guy who has proposed twenty-two get-rich-quick schemes, all of which turned out to be scams, is proposing a twenty-third? I’m sure he’s telling the truth this time, let’s line up to give him our money!”), the fact that Sally is rarely overtly stupid would make her the second-ranking genius in the place.

      • The idea of Sally being the brawn (comparatively) was excellent. It captured that brief childhood period where big stocky athletic girls are frequently stronger and taller than boys of the same age.

    • Those who are determined to find offense will find what they are looking for – it doesn’t matter if it makes sense.

  13. Zsuzsa

    I’m with you on the Kipling and Haggard books, but I’m a little less sure about Tom Swift because of the fact that they’re children’s books. Let me start by saying that I have never read any original Tom Swift books, so I have no idea if they are racist and/or sexist or not (I do not take the word of SJWs on that), but I do think that a different standard should prevail for children’s literature on these sorts of things. With adult or even young adult books, the reader can understand that things were different at the time they were written and put them in the proper context. Children, though, almost by definition lack the experience and context to do that.

    I have a few first edition Nancy Drew books from the 30s, back before the series was almost completely re-written. They give an interesting perspective, but the casual racist and eugenic attitudes do make me uncomfortable with the idea of giving them to my daughter when she’s the right age for Nancy Drew. I understand that at the time they were written, these were the attitudes of every educated person, and I don’t hold them against the author or the character, but my daughter hasn’t learned that yet, and I don’t know that I want to complicate her enjoyment of her first mystery series with all that.

    Like I said, I would never want to do a PC whitewash of an adult book. I would trust a ninth or even a seventh grader to read Huck Finn using the N-word to refer to Jim and recognize that that was just how things were at that time. And maybe I’m being a hypocrite on this, but do I really have to explain Jim Crow and Buck vs. Bell to my daughter before she even hits the third grade merely so she can read what ought to be one of her first chapter books? Or is it okay to keep the story intact but edit out a few of Nancy’s less polite comments about the Black housekeeper?

  14. Confutus

    When I started reading Hardy Boys books, one of my relatives donated an incomplete set of first edition books. so I wound up reading more of those. There weren’t many I had both of, but I did note that First Edition Aunt Gertrude had a notable bias against actresses that disappeared completely in the second edition.

    My mother had a collection of Gene Stratton Porter, one of which had some rather significant anti-Japanese material in it. Tarzan of the Apes was pretty doggone prejudiced against African blacks, but if you read the next story in the series, the Return of Tarzan, you found a very different type of African blacks.

    As long as you present a healthy variety of authors with a healthy variety of attitudes and some real people instead of just literary characters, I don’t think you need to worry. Just a few words along the lines of “Nancy isn’t being very polite about the housekeeper in this book, is she? A lot of people used to think and act that way. Some of them still do”. will probably raise your daughter’s consciousness nicely.

  15. I generally allow older books to operate in the culture of their times without comparing them to modern cultural standards. The alternative is to read nothing older than a few years, or material with no cultural context at all.

    The original Tom Swift series was kidpulp, a collection of (somewhat) laundered adventure stories that were the YA equivalent of the countless adventure pulps of that era. I’ve only read a few, and those only recently. They either weren’t that good or I’m just now too old. I don’t recall them being especially racist. Most of the villains were pasty white Snidely Whiplash types, and aboriginal peoples were treated with reasonable respect, as respect was defined in that era. The curious can find good-quality scans of most of them online.

    The original Tom Swift’s inventions were not super science at all. They were things that were for the most part already invented, like submarines, electric locomotives, motorcycles, and so on. They were still the stuff of dreams because Tom had them, and had built them himself. After all, what kid has his own submarine? Tom Swift was less a genius than a talented–and very rich–mechanic, one who specialized in Big Dangerous Things That Go Fast. Stratemeyer knew damned well what made young teen boys’ hearts pound, and it wasn’t girls.

    There was a parallel body of nonfiction kid literature in that era about building things, if not things as ambitious as 120 MPH electric locomotives. Dan Beard’s Handy Books come to mind, for outdoorsy things like canoes and kites. The Boy Mechanic was a series spun off by Popular Mechanics and described more feasible projects like model aircraft and a bicycle with sails. Those are worth having if you can find them, just to get a sense for what boys were capable of in the 1920s. As with the original Tom Swift, there are free scans all over the Web.

    As for Tom Swift, Jr., he was most of what launched me into SF, at least once Space Cat; was behind me. I’ve had a long-form appreciation on the Web for almost twenty years: http://www.duntemann.com/tomswift.htm.

    I’ve had the insight that those old “boys'” books were written quickly and without a great deal of editing. In that they remind me of some of the indie ebook fiction I’ve been sampling lately, which could certainly use a little polish. If I’ll fault them for anything, it would be that. Their culture is what it is, and if we refuse to read them to keep ourselves culturally “pure,” we do no favors for the books nor (especially) for ourselves.

    • I love your insight about why Tom Swift was so popular! I also grew up with books like The Handy Books, no one told me that Ernst Thompson Seton’s Two Little Savages, for instance, wasn’t allowed for a girl.

  16. Dan Z

    My sisters and I once discovered a box of old books tucked away in a closet at our grandparents’ house – that cardboard box was a treasure chest as far as we were concerned. Three of the books were Tom Swift books published in the 1930s and I remember thinking at the time that they were great adventure stories with really cool retro-futuristic technology.

    Also in that box was an illustrated Dick Tracy book published during World War 2 which, as you might expect, featured villainous Axis spies: one German, one Italian, and one Japanese. I don’t recall how old my sisters and I were, but we were old enough to recognize those Axis spies were drawn and named according to stereotypes – especially the Japanese spy who wasn’t even given a name. The fact that hate like that was considered perfectly acceptable content for a “little kid book” really brought home to me the sort of strong emotions war can bring out in people.

    I suppose that illustrates another nice thing about old stories. They give us the chance to see the world through words of people who were alive at the time rather than looking back at those times through the lens of our modern experiences and attitudes.