On January 2015, I read what may have been one of the last novels I ever read written before the 20th century. That novel just happened to be Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen and although I didn’t particularly enjoy it, this post is not about Jane Austen. It’s about how I came to the sudden realization that since I graduated college, I almost exclusively read books written in the 20th (usually second half) and 21st century and my quality of life as a reader increased exponentially! Perhaps I will not be looking back.
In high school and college I read enough works authored hundreds of years before my time. Tolstoy, Dickens, Melville, Bronte, Shakespeare, Swift, Defoe, etc. I may not be an expert on these classic works, but I have spent enough time reading them to know I no longer want them to be part of my life as a reader.
Here is a list of some of the most popular books written before the 20th century. How many have you read?
- Pride and Prejudice
- Great Expectations
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
- The Scarlet Letter
- Crime and Punishment
- Anna Karenina
- War and Peace
- The Count of Monte Cristo
Actually, all of these were written in the 19th century. I do concede that the 19th century was one of the best eras for literature and I have read many incredible works from that time. However, I feel that I have acquired enough knowledge of these past epochs –through schooling, studying history, and reading some of the literature — to confidently say that I want to be rooted in the present and also look forward in my reading endeavors.
Below are some of the reasons why I will no longer be reading books written before the 20th century. Please note that these are all personal reasons and I do not intend to say that everyone should feel as I do.
I personally want to support living authors of color
The book publishing industry is a living, breathing, and complicated monolith. The gatekeepers in that industry determine who gets published, promoted, and often they can even determine who becomes successful. As a reader, I have made it a personal goal to support and promote books written by people of color. I simply do not have time to look back and finally read Great Expectations, Madame Bovary, or The Divine Comedy. There will always be an audience for these books so I don’t feel like my deliberate rejection of them will affect their success and dominance. Instead, I want to spend my time, effort, and money supporting the current roster of diverse and multicultural authors in the literary world.
I am a human being and sometimes I want my reading to be fun!
There a few exceptions, but I have found most of the works written before the 20th century to be slow and ponderous. Sure, I did enjoy some of them but that was generally in the context of university work during which I had to spend hours upon hours getting to know these books intimately. For works like Oliver Twist, The Scarlet Letter, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame I felt like a hostage who ultimately succumbed to the throes of Stockholm Syndrome. On the other hand, books from the 20th and 21st century have given me the best reading experiences of my life. They feel new, relevant, and give me the tangible impression of inclusiveness and that I belong to the era of these books.
The majority of these (Western) novels were written by white authors
There’s nothing that can be done about this, and I don’t mean to say it’s a fault or a flaw. For a variety of reasons, some unpleasant and some not, white men and women (usually men) dominated the western world of literature. They actually still dominate it today, but it’s vastly more diverse and there are a myriad options for readers like me to choose from. I’d much rather be part of this more inclusive era of literature that includes books that were actually written for people like me.
Discovering and following new authors can be incredibly rewarding
Harking back to the first point I made — supporting talented new authors of color is another way I plan to affect change in the publishing industry in my own small way. In the last year, I have read or am anticipating promising new writers such as Chinelo Okparanta, Saleem Haddad, Karan Mahajan, and Kristy Acevedo. Knowing that I discovered these authors during the beginning of their careers has been personally fulfilling and I cannot wait to see where their writing takes me.
Perhaps I shouldn’t say so definitively that I will never read a book written by a white man before the 20th century. That sounds so final and I don’t like setting limitations on myself. But I will say that for the foreseeable future, I will continue to read novels (usually) written after the second half of the 20th century. It’s simply a personal choice that concisely and accurately reflects my goals as a reader.
What’s your take on this topic?
How often do you read books written before the 20th century?
Do you prefer modern or classic books?
Let me know in the comments below!