Off the Record: how old books help us deal with new - and frightening - times

The best course of action in these times? Read old books for all the answers.

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I made two resolutions back in January. 1) To keep a reading journal, recording the books I read, with a few notes on them, maybe a quote or two. 2) To spend at least the first half of the year reading old books. No specific era or genre in mind, just anything that wasn’t published in the past fifty years or so.

I love reading new fiction, and non-fiction, for that matter. Being part of the conversation about the latest books, sharing ideas with others reading a book at the same time, is one of the best bits of Twitter, when it operates like a huge and friendly book group. But sometimes I can feel caught in a race to keep up. The pile on the bedside table stares at me accusingly. Enough.

I started with the audiobook of Madame Bovary, listening to it on foggy Heath walks over the New Year period, lines leaping out at me in the gloom: “She wanted to die, but she also wanted to live in Paris”; “He felt dreary as an empty house”; “Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers”. It reminds me that many writers say you should always read aloud anything you’ve written, in order to feel its rhythms and cadence. By the end of the 14 hours of listening, the book is inside my head and my head has gone somewhere else entirely, which I like.

Meanwhile, I’ve also read Bonjour tristesse and the first two books of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, and I’m planning to work my way through John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, Muriel Spark and Barbara Pym, something by Raymond Carver, more by James Baldwin, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, and War and Peace. Oh no, look at me: I’ve gone and made a list again.

It’s a list without pressure, though, as no one cares when or if I read these books and my opinions don’t need to keep pace with anyone else’s. And it feels like a relief not to have to be current. Is it wrong to want to distract myself? Am I in denial? It feels good, like changing channels, or turning the dial on a radio – other lives going on in other times. It makes me feel we’re not alone, stranded here in the present.

And relevance springs up everywhere. People have always felt like us; things we think we invented turn out to have been there all the time, and you’ll be reading away, merrily cocooned in the past, when you stumble across some observation that sounds like it was made yesterday.

For instance, this from my latest read, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, by Barbara Comyns: “The sun seemed to shine perpetually . . . The summers used to be like that when I was a child, and in the winters there was always deep snow or hard frost. The weather has grown all half-hearted now.” We all claim that nowadays, whatever our age, but she wrote it back in 1950.

In A Buyer’s Market by Anthony Powell (1952), I find this quotation that perfectly describes the supposedly modern teen phenomenon of FOMO (fear of missing out): “There is a strong disposition in youth, from which some individuals never escape, to suppose that everyone else is having a more enjoyable time than we are ourselves . . .”

And finally – this passage from Powell’s A Question of Upbringing, where Nick Jenkins is talking about his disreputable uncle, made me sit up straight, in astonished recognition of the kind of chancer who now seems everywhere to be in power:

 

. . . Uncle Giles had been relegated by most of the people who knew him at all well to that limbo where nothing is expected of a person, and where more than usually outrageous actions are approached, at least conversationally, as if they constituted a series of practical jokes . . . The curious thing about persons regarding whom society has taken this largely self-defensive measure is that the existence of the individual himself reaches a pitch when nothing he does can ever be accepted as serious.

 

Oh Lord, I thought, there really is nothing new under the sun. You go reading old books looking for an escape into the past, and where do you find yourself? Slap bang in the middle of the present, as usual. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her books include Naked at the Albert Hall, Bedsit Disco Queen and, most recently, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia 

This article appears in the 09 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine