Why I No Longer Read Books Written Before The 20th Century

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 
  • Frankenstein
  • Great Expectations
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • The Scarlet Letter
  • Crime and Punishment
  • Anna Karenina
  • War and Peace
  • The Count of Monte Cristo
  • Middlemarch

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 OkparantaSaleem HaddadKaran 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!

43 thoughts on “Why I No Longer Read Books Written Before The 20th Century

  1. Yes, auch a great post! I definitely empathize with your goal and for me it’s kinda the process of casting off white Western reading traditions and all the oppression it entails, that has me now just reveling in the joy of representation. It took me a while and now beyond the greats reading lists I feel much better for exploring not only (my personal pref) woc authors but also genre fiction like science fiction written by woc.
    Your point on supporting living poc writers is excellent. I have a tight budget and am now working on assembling my personal library, buying only books that reflect my thoughts and my humanity. Will do a series of posts on that soon cause who who would have thought giving a trunk full of books away and buying a few but loved woc lit staples would feel this good! 🙂

    1. Please recommend science fiction by women of color to me. Or write a post about your favorites if you haven’t done so. I’d be all over that!

      My goodness, you gave many of your books away!? There must have been so many if you felt it was necessary. But I definitely love your idea of creating a personal library that reflects your thoughts and humanity. I’m excited to see the pictures you’ll post.

      1. Heh yeah I had to buy lots of books for collge classes and not necessarily ones I wanted to reread (notably lots of white dude postmodernism) and then I always get excited at library sales and buy German translations of English works I actually want. So then I got rid of lots of those and I think they found good homes, I passed them on 🙂
        Yeah I might to a post on that soonish, I’m relatively new to fantasy and sf. I always highly recommend N.K. Jemisin, one of my first favorites. Just posted on a reading list for a challenge, there’s 5 fantasy titles I’m excited to read, maybe they’ll appeal to you!

  2. Maybe Never is a big word like you mentioned but I get you totally ahaha 😀 having read most of the works in your list, I aso think it’s time for me to appreciate more the books of today 🙂 Great post !!

    1. Perhaps when I’m 50, old, and boring I’ll feel more compelled to read the classics, especially the ones even before the 19th century. Geez, I literally have no interest in reading them right now! I want my reading to be fun. lol

  3. I always aim to read classics but it never ever happens! I’m so bad at it lol! I just don’t find reading as entertaining when I’m trying to force myself to read book I usually wouldn’t be drawn towards simply because it’s a classic.
    I’m right there with you, when it’s so much fun to discover new authors and help be part of the reason they get there book out there in the world. Great post 🙂

  4. Yet there are so many other great authors of past centuries. You have 3 of Russia and one French, there are so many other amazing authors in Japan, Italy, Spain, etc.And all classics way before the 19th century without which you would not have today’s writers.

    1. Of course there are! I only listed 10 popular works of Western fiction that by no means represent the scope of pre-20th century literature.

      I appreciate and acknowledge their contributions to the literary world and culture in general, as well as the inspiration they have provided for countless writers. So do millions of other people! I don’t think one man’s personal choice to no longer read these works is going to devalue their worth.

  5. I went through a period where I went back to read some of the ‘classics’ that I plodded my way through in high school because I had to. I had mixed results. When I read Dickens, I thoroughly enjoyed his work and it was still relevant. I went back and read Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, which is very early 20th century and found it mediocre. I reread the Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, and still found it painful and boring. I had the same issue with Les Miserables. It taught me much more about Napolean era France than I ever wanted to know.

    1. I’ve had very mixed results as well. Les Miserables was a good movie, but I think I’ll stop there and save myself the time and effort of reading the book.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m struck by an urge to read older works when I’m older myself. That’s why I was hesitant to say it so definitively. Currently, though, modern fiction is where my heart’s at.

  6. I do enjoy 20th century novels a bit more since they are more diverse and have a more contemporary feel. But as a person who studied English literature for so long and got a degree in the same subject I don’t ever think I could stop reading 18th/19th century novels. Now that I’m older I have a greater appreciation for older literature, and I like the freedom of being able to choose what classics to read on my own time. Great post 🙂

    1. I majored in English as well, but I never really felt a strong connection to older literature. I definitely enjoyed it when I was young, mostly because I thought that it was the kind of literature I should be reading. But as I grew older, I realized that the love I thought was natural and innate may a reaction to societal expectations. So it seems that we came to opposite realizations! But of course, I completely understand and respect your opinion. Do you review classic works on your blog? I figured they may not draw the most hits, but sometimes I see bloggers reviewing them.

      1. I completely understand where you’re coming from. Luckily, my English teachers growing up presented a wide variety of assigned books so while one month we were reading The Odessey the next month we were reading Flowers for Algernon. Plus I am obsessed with historical fiction so I like reading about past events, people, and historical society from all over the world. I’ve been looking for and having some success with finding classics from other countries too. In the future, I might review classics, but right now I’m enjoying reading the classics without having to do a literary analysis of it. It’s always nice to meet a fellow English major! 🙂

  7. I don’t read a lot of classics, but sometimes I like to read one, mostly for the historical value of it. I like history, and reading about it by way of classical fiction is a good way to see it through the eyes of someone who has lived it. But, I definitely understand all your points, and at this point it’s pretty clear to me that I prefer modern fiction to the classics.

    1. Yes, modern fiction rocks! And there’s plenty of interesting fiction that draws on the political and historical events of the last 100 years or so I don’t feel like I’m missing out on too much by foregoing older works.

  8. I think people should read whatever they want. After you finish school, you shouldn’t be pressured to read classics if you don’t want to.

    That being said, I read classics. I’ve read almost all of the books you mentioned in this post. I like classics because I’m interested in history and want to see it from the POV of someone who lived through it. Also, classics influence modern literature, and I feel like I have a deeper understanding of modern books because I’ve read their predecessors.

    Interesting discussion.

  9. I think this is a fantastic idea! And I love your reasons for doing so 🙂 I find I tend to gravitate towards this sort of attitude anyway, the classics seem so intimidating – although that being said I’m definitely curious to read them still. In particular, I’d like to read more of Dickens’ work just because of the way his reflects the society of that period. From what I’ve glimpsed of it, it seems like a writing style more suited to me than Austen, but I guess we’ll see!! On a side note, every now and then there’s really great reads like Black Beauty that I enjoy immensely.

    Great post 🙂

    1. Of course, there are so many great works written hundreds of years ago! I have enjoyed many of them. Personally, I’m not a fan of Dickens but do like Austen. One can’t account for taste!

      Classics definitely are intimidating and among the reading community there is some social pressure to read them if you want to be considered a real reader. I definitely don’t like that. Have you ever felt pressure to read classics?

      1. I find it really frustrating when someone has that opinion that you need to read the classics. I find Pride & Prejudice is a big one for that because it’s so popular – some people are astounded if you haven’t read it which was a big part of why I decided to read it in the end. Most of the others I feel you can get away with.

  10. This is a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and I am with you. I love all the points, but I love No. 2 more. I am not enjoying those books anymore. I tried reading ‘Emma’, when I was stranded in my office for three days, as Chennai was monstrously flooded last December. I knew reading was my only solace. But ‘Emma’ was the only book I had then, but it didn’t help me. It was such a hard work to read it. That day, I began thinking about it, and it’s been a long while since I read such books. You have made a thoughtful decision. 🙂

    1. Oh, no! I really liked “Emma”! 🙁 It’s definitely not as good as Pride and Prejudice, but I thought it was delightful. Sense and Sensibility was insipid and dull, though! lol

      What!? You were stranded in your office for THREE DAYS? How awful. I would have gone insane. Did you guys have electricity? Were you without a smartphone the whole time!? :p

  11. I definitely empathize, but I think I’ve decided to rest somewhere in the middle ground. Lots of the readers I like today have, to some extent, been influenced by those classical authors. By reading some of the books that interested and influenced them, I feel more connected to them. More understanding of their writing style, too. I’ve also sought to redefine what classic literature means to me– Arab authors were most certainly writing before the 20th century, so perhaps its worth me exploring. Most of those classic books by white authors didn’t really appeal to me, anyway.

    But I absolutely understand the want to spend your time supporting living, breathing diverse authors. It’s needed.

    1. You’re right. Perhaps my blanket rule is unnecessarily indiscriminate and I may be missing out on great texts written by nonwestern authors.

      When I wrote this post, I was mostly thinking about English language/ Western works of literature. Admittedly, this is a very limited scope of the world of literature. So thanks for acknowledging my points and understanding that it’s simply a personal choice.

  12. I’ve been reading current literature for a while now, so I kind of want to go back and pick up some classics that I missed along the way. But I’ll keep reading current too. And I completely understand where you’re coming from though.
    I think you would like Ravi Howard. He’s just getting started, and he’s from my state. I had the pleasure of meeting him and he’s awesome. He’s only written two books so far Like Trees, Walking and Driving the King. Both are fictionalized accounts of actual events (which I love). Based on what I read on your post, I think you would like his books.

  13. Great post! I still read classics and some of them do have my heart. I think I read them more for the language (I love words and classics often have me looking words up in the dictionary) but of course I rarely have a strong connection to them because they don’t include characters like me, characters that have experiences and issues I can relate to. I would say I now read less than 10% classics a year and until I was 25 or so classics made up maybe 80% of my reading, so if I never picked up another classic again I don’t think it would be a great loss because I’ve read plenty and my worldview for the first couple of decades of my life was shaped heavily by (male) Anglo writers. I prefer postcolonial literature and women’s literature because they help me make sense of the world and, like you, I want to support living writers, in particular POC.

    1. Oh, I missed your comment!
      I can definitely tell you love language. You post the most beautiful passages on Twitter and you’re a wonderful writer as well.
      You are very well read on the classics, so reading 10% classics a year seems like a reasonable number.

      I think everyone should read older books while in high school and college, discover if they are genuinely drawn and captivated by them, and then proceed to read more diversely after their mid twenties. That’s just my opinion, though! Obviously, everyone should read whatever they like 🙂

  14. I started reading fairy tales when I was a kid progressing to the classics in high school. They were good at the time but I am with you there. We can only be stuck in the past for so long. It’s always good to explore new material and the modern times are bursting at the seams with new books waiting to be devoured.

  15. First up I must say a well written post. I enjoyed reading it and contemplating the topic at hand. Secondly I cannot say how happy I am to find that someone agrees that Sense and Sensibility is quite ‘insipid and dull’. (Jane please forgive me!) I’m a huge follower of Austen but S&S has never appealed to me and I fear never will.

    Though classics are in a way quite far from the modern way of life, I feel that in reading them, its a way of preserving the language and shapes us for a better understanding of the eras gone by. Most classics I find are more enjoyable once I’ve read them while knowing the context of the time of publication. Right now I’m making my way through classics due to university and I find it something I enjoy, not a chore but something I do willingly. Maybe coming from a different background to these authors and the lives of these people are a lure in itself for me. The pressure to read classics is real though while the choice of reading material is something we must respect.

    I agree that we should support living writers but we also mustn’t in the process forget those who made literature what it is today. (too classical reading activist much?) Perhaps we should try reading fiction from before the 20th century of a more diverse variety. Also hasn’t your reading of the authors you mention influenced your appreciating of literature even a tiny bit?

    1. Oh, I missed your comment too! I’ve been so busy at work and haven’t been able to visit other people’s blogs much 🙁

      Ideally, young people should read and appreciate older literature from high school and throughout college. After that, they can decide for themselves if the classics are really the literature they want to incorporate into their lives as readers on a regular basis.

      Again, it all comes down to personal choice. Of course I appreciate the classics and all people should read at least some of them. However, I have personally prioritized supporting living authors of color and my limited time only allows for more modern works. I do think that the 20th and 21st century have a rich history and culture to offer readers that is still relevant and important.

  16. Very thought-provoking post. I’m definitely in the same boat – lately I’ve been reading a lot more books by a far more diverse range of authors than I ever did when I was in high school, or during my early years of uni. I think that’s a good thing – we’re seeing a bigger shift in promoting books by PoC authors and I LOVE that. I think about how my whole schooling experience would have been different had I had that kind of context for my education. But at least kids nowadays are getting more of that opportunity.

    Anyways, classic books fall into that category of “books you read so you can claim you’ve read them”. A good majority of them are certainly not read because a person was interested – it’s often because of school, and impressing our friends and fellow bookworms. I think the only classics that really stick with you are the ones that you felt compelled to read on your own. Some of them will always have a special place in my heart, but for now, I’m all for promoting the authors that seem to get left by the wayside.

    1. I’m glad we see this matter similarly.

      I also have seen a bigger shift and movement to promote more diverse books and authors. And I’m so glad to be part of that movement! It’s such important work.

  17. I see your point. I rarely read books written before the 20th Century, and to be honest, I devour contemporary books about and by people from different countries and cultures and I love diversity in literature. I only object to one thing in your post, the use of ‘white’ as though everyone with pale skin thinks and feels and looks the same. Can we not move beyond this in the 21st Century, in the mode of Ta Nehisi Coates who makes the excellent point in his recent book, that ‘white’ is a ‘so-called’ category invented only to perpetuate a non-existent dichotomy in society.

    1. I don’t mean to say that white authors or white people are homogeneous, basically nobody thinks that because white people are allowed to be complex and nuanced in how they are represented across all media. That isn’t always the case for people of color, however. Which is why I opt to read mostly books written by nonwhite authors (I still read books by white authors, I just don’t blog about them).

      When I say I don’t read books written before the 20th century because many of them were written by white people, I mean to say that their stories have been so widely read and discussed, that I would rather read stories by nonwhite people. Again, it’s my way of supporting authors of color because they are the ones who need the most support and promotion. I certainly don’t think white people are a homogeneous group, and I apologize if that’s how it appeared.

  18. THIS: ‘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.’

    Totally brilliant post!

  19. I read quite a lot of the same books as you (for fun) and discovered that aside from abridged version of Count of Monte Cristo, I found the rest, well, boring. There are awesome non-Western authors that wrote prior to 20th century like Murasaki Shikibu for one, Cao Xueqin, and although I didn’t read them yet, there is also Narrative life of Frederic Douglass, also Olaudah Equino.

    Like you, I love stories that were written in 20th century, both early and late. I loved Willa Cather, Pearl Buck, the age of innocence by Edith Wharton, Chaim Potok, Michael Gold, Han Suyin’s till morning comes and so forth.

    I also should mention that the author of The Count of Monte Cristo has African ancestry.

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