Tag Archives: old books

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.

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Museum Books

I was looking at one of the photos I took at the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon, when it crossed my mind to try and find copies of the books in their little library. Perhaps, I thought, all the old books will have entered public domain, and be readily available to those of us who are interested in history and have a slight budget.

Well, not quite. Oh, some may be in public domain, but not all are available free. I’ve compiled a list of the titles, which are linked to the ebooks I found. I’ll make a note if it’s free. I will also include a list of related books I found while looking, because as you know, going down the rabbit hole of book shopping means you always come up with more than you bargained for!

High Desert Museum Bend Oregon

Related Titles:

Pathfinders of the West Being the Thrilling Story of the Adventures of the Men Who Discovered the Great Northwest: Radisson, La Vérendrye, Lewis and Clark this one is free, it came up when I was trying to find The Great West. 

Growing up, my mother’s favorite book was Swiss Family Robinson. We read more than one copy to pieces, reading it out loud, and I think she used it as a study aid at one point. I wonder if she’s seen this one? American Family Robinson is a free ebook.

This one looks interesting, and the price is right for looking into it, The Great Lone Land A Narrative of Travel and Adventure in the North-West of America. 

I couldn’t resist this title! By the author of Beyond the Mississippi you will find The Secret Service: The Field, the Dungeon, and the Escape.

Now that we have all these books, what are we going to do with them? Well, personally I am going to do some research and plot out a book of deep space exploration on a hostile planet. I love reading tales of derring-do and scouting, have written some on a small scale, and why not? Sure, it’s been done. But there are stories hidden in these books that will be fun to blend into the mix. Life is more improbable than fiction, which might mean I have to tame down the wild tales of opening the West.

Or maybe I’ll start on the other project that my recent visit to Oregon sparked in my mind. A series of kid’s books, as my Mom’s friend Lee asked for, about ‘little mysteries’ things found in attics, or under the roots of a gnarled tree, or… I read a throwaway book on the trip (there was a lot of reading time in airports and on planes) which mentioned the old crusty tale of the Lost Dutchman’s Mine. I grew up with that story. I also grew up with my Dad avidly prospecting for gold. I’ve felt that fever as you slowly swirl off the black sand and see the glints of ‘color’ and I think it would be great fun to write some of that and this into tales to inspire young dreamers.

But most of all, this shows me how the internet has changed research. These books aren’t terribly old. They were behind glass, cut off from readers, a simple, static display that most people probably walk right by on their way to more interactive exhibits at the museum. However, with an hour of poking about on Amazon and the Internet Archive, I had found almost all of them for free or cheap. Suddenly, those forgotten books are accessible to all who have eyes to see and look again. So many stories, so little time.

 

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To live you must first die

I’m sure everyone who reads here has heard variations on “it’s easy to write: just open a vein and let it pour out”. What it is, is dying in order to live. Everyone who truly lives knows how this works. Writers do it all the time.

Of course, Sarah is to blame for this. Her post yesterday led me here: I was raised on books. Hell, I should introduce myself with “My name is Kate, and I am a compulsive reader”. If there’s print on it, it gets read. If there’s anything vaguely print-like on it I’ll drive myself insane trying to read it.

I have no memory of life before reading. My parents tell me I was reading simple things by the age of three – my memories from that far back are fragmentary and hard to pin down to any specific age or time – and by the time I’d started school I’d effectively forced them to use a height-based shelving system. If I shouldn’t read it, it was shelved too high for me to reach. What they didn’t realize was that I could climb…

I devoured anything in print. Enid Blyton, Laura Ingalls Wilder, hundreds of others I couldn’t begin to name. There were old books from my grandmother’s childhood (yes, English boarding school stories), my parents had old “books for boys” and “books for girls” with all their articles and serialized stories – I preferred the ones for boys because there was more adventure – books written in the 1900s for mothers to read to their children… and of course the ones I wasn’t supposed to read which I climbed to and investigated. Some I read, secretly, others were just boring (in some cases because I wasn’t old enough to get what was in them… I was a strange child).

At the same time I went through fads where if I got the choice I’d read a particular kind of book. At one point it was horsey stories (started, I think, by Black Beauty. Funnily enough none of the horsey books for children came close to that), then when I’d read out the supply at the local and school library I started browsing widely again until something caught my interest and became the next reading fad (possibly mysteries – I know the Famous Five was in there somewhere). Rinse and repeat… Historicals got a run, too. Of course once I hit science fiction and fantasy there I stayed, but I’ll still read anything if my supply of reading material is limited enough (for some things I have to be really bored).

Looking back at some of these old favorites with an adult eye, I see different things. I see the attitudes of the era, sometimes shining and sometimes reeking through the prose. No doubt future readers will see the same things with what I write. We’re all to some extent products of our time and have very basic assumptions built into everything we do.

And this is why, in order to fully live, you have to die.

Those assumptions, those attitudes, got there at a very early age. I’d guarantee not one Victorian or Edwardian writer who characterized their villains as “evil-looking” in a time when the belief that what was inside inevitably reflected on the outside sat down and deliberately set out to make the cannibal tribe look evil and the noble tribesman who assists the hero looks rather more… well… white. Their standards of what looked good were built as children in a time when darker skin meant lower class, rough, and possibly dishonest (their parents grew up in a world where pale skin meant you were wealthy and didn’t need to work outdoors). No, they wrote their story and their assumptions came along for the ride, and shaped the end result.

Basically, they’re so ingrained they become part of the person. So of course, when one of these assumptions dies so, at least in part, does the person who owns it. A really good writer actively seeks them out and kills them in order to build a new set that will allow them to write the next story even better (they might not succeed – but this is what allows writers to speculate on wildly different core assumptions… to a certain extent).

The thing with this is that when you immerse yourself into a different assumption set, you lose part of who you were and become… someone else. To write Impaler and as I write the sequel Kaziklu Bey, I take on what I hope is the mindset of a late 15th century Eastern European man. Each time I do this, it melds rather more with my own mindset, and a little more of who I am changes to something else. The merging kills part of who I was – I am no longer so certain that people should be judged entirely on their merits. To some extent this is a little more merciful: I never had much patience for stupidity, and my personal measure of “too stupid to live” would eliminate 90% of the human race. It’s also rather more cruel. I’m less inclined to forgive well-intentioned disasters, and have been known to express regret that impaling certain co-workers would ruin the carpet (okay, I do test software for a living, and sometimes what comes out of the developers hands is… beyond frustrating).

Sometimes, too, to really appreciate something you need to throw away all the preconceptions and just take it as it is. The cat doesn’t like to sit on your lap? Maybe a kitty bed on the desk where a free hand can provide snuggles is the way to go. The big six won’t touch your book with a barge pole? Maybe it’s time to take the leap of faith, lose that assumption that those in power also have moral authority, and publish it yourself (then again, if your book is thinly disguised Star Wars fanfic shipping Luke and Jabba the Hutt, maybe not… The lawsuits might not be the worst thing about that.)

You see? If in your imagination you can see where things might go if you just say “fuckit” and do what weird/bizarre/repulsive thing you’ve always wondered about, maybe you’ve got a story there. Or maybe a cautionary tale. But if you don’t die a little and live the new thing, you’ll never find out.

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