Older books are still worth a read
Two days ago, I finished reading Jon Hassler’s Rookery Blues (Ballantine Books, 1995, 485 pages). Hassler focuses his novel on the lives of professors and administrators at a small state college in Minnesota. One faculty member, a former worker in the oil fields, tries to organize a faculty strike. Two more become acquainted through playing music and fall in love. Another, a shy pianist dominated by his mother, finds fulfillment in a faculty band playing blues and jazz. A budding novelist has no talent for teaching.
In The Destiny Thief, a book about writing I mentioned in an earlier review, novelist Richard Russo pointed me to Rookery Blues. I had read several of Hassler’s novels 20 years ago and enjoyed them, but what caught my attention was Russo’s argument for omniscient narration in the novel. Omniscient narration occurs when the author offers the reader the viewpoints of the various characters in the book, sometimes in the same passage. Russo advocates such an approach, using as his examples writers like Charles Dickens and Jon Hassler.
But, I am not here to write about literary devices.
No — I’d like to address books and book reviews.
In general, most reviewers take an interest only in new books. This makes sense, as older books have already received either their accolades or their slings and arrows. A few critics — Nick Hornby in his wonderful collection of reviews Ten Years In the Tub, and the great Michael Dirda of the Washington Post — do revisit older books, but this is rare.
It is also unfortunate, especially for good literature.
First, check out the publication date of Rookery Blues: 1995. Readers under the age of 40 will become acquainted with Hassler, whose writing I admire, only by bumbling into his novels in their library or local bookstore, or by coming across his name, as I did, in another book.
Consider Larry Woiwode’s Beyond The Bedroom Wall, a rich, lyrical novel about the Neumiller family in North Dakota. I was living in Boston and working in the Old Corner Bookstore when this book was published in 1975. Like many others, I was blown away by the story and the quality of the writing — Woiwode was first a poet, and brings those skills into his prose — and subsequently I read everything by Woiwode I could get my hands on. (I have just opened my age-spotted first edition of Beyond The Bedroom Wall, which I have not read in many years, and marveled again at the book’s power. His account of a death in the Neumiller family touched my heart at age 24. Today, four decades and more later, with so many deaths and so many losses of one kind or another behind me, these same passages moved me to tears.)
Because this novel is 43 years old, most readers under the age of 50 may never discover what some critics regard of as one of the great American novels.
And unlike Hassler’s works, Beyond The Bedroom Wall and most of Woiwode’s other books are out of print. They may be obtained only in your local library, from secondhand bookshops, and online.
More and more, we live in a culture of the immediate present. We live in the now. (The word novel itself comes from the Latin novus, meaning new.) Every day a flood of information inundates us, carrying away and burying in the silt many treasures from the past. Larry McMurtry’s novel about a young woman in Texas in the 1960s, Moving On: Walter Miller’s apocalyptic A Canticle For Leibowitz; Tom McGuane’s story of junkies and burn-outs in the Florida Keys, Ninety-Two In The Shade; Anton Myrer’s A Green Desire; John Gardner’s The Sunlight Dialogues and Mickelssoon’s Ghosts; Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle; Anthony Burgess’s lively books, especially Earthly Powers: these and dozens of other novels receive little notice, though all of them are as good as, and in most cases better than, the novels coming out today. (They were also better than most of the novels in print at the time of their publication.)
Many of you reading this column know how to dig through the silt deposited by the river of the new and find such riches. For those of you who don’t, here are some tips:
First, browse your local libraries and bookshops. Just wander up and down the aisles, pulling whatever strikes your fancy and reading the book’s blurb. This is the slowest approach, but in an age when all is hustle-and-clatter, it may be the most satisfying.
Next, explore online sites like goodreads.com. This is a little like visiting the library, but you can do it sitting in your own home. Here you will find book-lovers reviewing thousands of books. If you prefer books of a certain genre, such as suspense novels, Google “100 greatest suspense novels” and start through the list.
Seek out readers older than you. Bring a pen and paper, and ask them for the titles and authors of their top 10 favorite books. Take your list, hit the laptop, and follow the trails they’ve pointed out.
Finally, and perhaps most easily, read books about books. Hornby and Dirda are wonderful guides. Look for Jane Mallison’s Book Smart or George and Karen Grant’s Shelf Life. There are many such books, and your library should have an ample supply of them.
Take these steps, and you’re in for some grand surprises and fine adventures.