Today’s question comes from my mom who sent me this article and asked, “Are books ever old and outdated?” For this discussion’s purposes, I’ll also expand this to all stories, poetry, and nonfiction, and we’ll define “old and outdated” as a loss of relevancy.
First of all, let’s look at books. In their most basic sense, books are merely a physical means of collecting, preserving and transmitting stories and knowledge. Their relevancy is not so much a question of time so long as those who have access to them can effectively interact with them. By this I mean, whoever picks up a book can read and understand it. As such, whether the book was published five days ago or five hundred years in the past doesn’t matter. If the text is legible and in a language a reader understands or one that can be translated, it is relevant as a form of preserved information.
Centuries old tomes rest in honored places in libraries and museums, treasured by scholars and book enthusiasts. I have no doubt that these individuals would take great umbrage at an accusation that these texts, many gorgeous forms of art as well, are outdated or old in the sense that suggests irrelevancy.
Much of the basis of every school’s English program would be destroyed if the concept were widely embraced. What would happen then to Malory, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spencer, Franklin, Dickenson, Twain, or most of the literary cannon? Because we honor these authors so dearly, how could we then claim that any book is outdated? And claiming simply that these authors surpass the standard because of their brilliance is specious. The genius of a work or its artistic value is subjective and often not determined until after an author dies. Emily Dickenson is a perfect example as her poems never received professional attention until her sister, if I’m recalling my American literature course correctly, read them aloud to a publisher.
So as far as I am concerned, the question of a book’s relevancy as a form of transcribing and transmitting knowledge is not something we need to worry too much over. Yes, we can mourn the potential loss of the trade paperback or the book in the form we’ve known our whole lives, but in some way or another, I honestly believe books will be around far, far into the future.
Of course, books have changed forms for centuries and will continue to do so. They were once written on carefully made parchment. When the printing press came about, their form changed, from the material of the pages to the composition of the ink. Now, we have eBooks which, although their place remains uncertain and in flux, have unquestionably impacted the market in greater numbers than imaginable even a decade ago. I have no doubt that after eBooks another form of book will emerge, perhaps holographic books, perhaps even ones that mimic the feel and smell of real paper books or, even more enticing, that of parchment and illuminated texts. But whatever substances make up a book’s construction, the core concept of a book as a vehicle containing information, narrative, and verse will remain.
Which brings me to the second element of this discussion: the content of books. This is an altogether separate dimension of the question of relevancy. A book is simply the physical manifestation, a story or text is the substance. Let me take this in two parts: nonfiction and fiction and poetry.
Nonfiction in some cases becomes outdated faster than most other forms. Just look at a software manual for example. In a year or two, one becomes nearly obsolete as fast as technology changes. But there are some pieces of knowledge that remain despite the passage of time. William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066. This date will not change, and the impact of his invasion was such that it cannot, or should not, be ignored. Yet historians and archaeologists uncover new dimensions to that invasion as time passes, so elements of history are added or altered. Besides this, looking back at how something was viewed in the past can give us glimpses into the zeitgeist of a historical period or people. So in that sense, no, it does not lose its relevancy. In the sense of pertaining immediately to the present, that is more determined on an individual basis and still remains subjective.
However, fiction and poetry are another story altogether—pun intended. Unlike nonfiction, fiction and poetry seek to reflect, in some sense, the essence of a time, a people, a place. It is the distillation of human experience through the lens of the author poured out onto the page or offered to the listening ears of an audience. Where nonfiction is concerned with facts, fiction and poetry concern themselves with insights into the human mind and heart and into human experience. Facts change. Details of events are revealed or obscured over time. One event is never quite the same as another. Philosophies can be debated, viewpoints disproved or supported, scientific theories debunked or adhered to with fanatical force. But the human experiences of pain, triumph, loss, community, joy, solitude, the thirst for knowledge, the quest for belonging, etc. don’t change. That is why we still read Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Dream of the Rood, Le Mort d’Arthur, Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and their like. Fiction and poetry will never fade. Whether the story takes place in ancient Greece or on the Mississippi River, its nature resonates with audiences through time. Many a student might not agree with this sentiment, but there is a reason that for those who care to see past the older forms of language construction and diction, there is a meaning that bypasses the confines of a single time and place and touches the human mind and heart of all generations.
What do you think? Can books or stories or poetry ever become irrelevant?