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.