Why We Read
Modern Books

By Faith Walessa

Has everything worth reading
already been written?

There is not only one kind of good art. As society changes, its art changes as well, but change is not always for the worse. Some parts of the past will be lost to us, at great cost; others will be improved upon through new styles and innovations built upon the old. So here are my thoughts on a topic that’s surfaced quite a bit recently in my life, and perhaps they’ll be helpful to you, too.

If we spend the rest of our lives waiting for the next Iliad, then we may never find anything worth reading ever again. There is no next Iliad: it has already been written, and as it was done rather well the first time, we have no need of a remake. Rather than hoping for something we already have, why not embrace the fact that new books are also capable of giving us new ideas, opening our eyes to the world around us, and passing on truth? Humanity has changed, yes, but there is no change so great that it prevents us from creating art worth sharing, writing thoughts worth reading, and asking questions worth answering. Every generation has its artists, and a person’s ability to tell a powerful truth is not conditional on the century in which they were born.

Take Charles Dickens. He published his novels as popular fiction, in weekly installments in local papers. How sad for his contemporaries if they viewed his works as a passing novelty, hardly deserving of their time. This highlights another truth: every classic was once a new release—some author’s debut novel. While seemingly obvious, this reminds us that nothing begins as a classic; the books we now know as classics were worth just as much before they formally received such a title. They were once simply modern books.

Perhaps even more importantly, the reality of the present is that it does not last long. It is an inevitable tendency to view the present as desolate of all the greatness of the past, which stands unreachable, symbolic of all good things.

I am unbody'd by thy books, and thee,
And in thy papers find my extasie.

Cynicism is easy—we look at the world up close, during everyday life, and just think about how hopelessly bad everything has become. When this line of thought is not watched, it becomes all pervasive and self-fulfilling: we begin to apply it to everything, and echo the common, age-old wish that things would just go back to the way they used to be. From there, it’s easy to forget that it is almost certain everyone who has ever lived has thought the exact same way. Anyone alive at the times we idolize would not see us staring back at them, because they too were looking behind, thinking how far culture had fallen. This is because each generation only tries to preserve the best parts of the ones that came before. We hold on to their greatest achievements, not their failures, so that (in our limited perspective) everything they wrote and created and drew was golden and glorious. But to them, these were rare moments, and the rest was the plain, empty present. The truth about the golden ages of history is that they were given their names after they were already over. When you’re in it, you don’t even realize it’s there.

Now, I am not trying to suggest that we’re living in a golden age of our own, but I am trying to say that in every age, there will be parts that are dark, and parts that are gold. If we forget this, we make it harder for the gold to exist. If we look at the books around us and complain that nothing worth reading is being written “anymore,” we may be part of the reason this comes true. Writing is a career as well as an art, and authors only make money when they write something for which there is an audience. Books aren’t worth anything until they are read, and they won’t be read unless there is a group that is interested in what they contain. If we want quality modern books, we have to be the receptive audience that is waiting for them. By shutting down the idea of a good modern book, we unintentionally shut down the reality as well.

Besides that, there are excellent books that have been written recently; and though literature may have taken a turn for the worse in some areas, it has the potential to improve in others. Look at Elie Wiesel‘s Night, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan. And present art has one major advantage the classics could never dream of: it is being made at a time when the classics already exist. Intentionally or not, all art is inspired in some way by what comes before it. The immediate present, therefore, has the greatest advantage in this creative process and the largest foundation on which to build.

Personally, I’m optimistic and excited about what a new generation of authors could bring to the world of art. What I’ve found to be true over and over again is that each different form of beauty has something unique to add to life. Searching and reading widely and fairly, with a mind that is looking for good above all else, is the way to get the most out of a life in art. The earth does not yet contain all the beauty it will someday hold, and we are alive at a time in which it is being added to—and isn’t that a beautiful thought?

Faith Walessa is a freshman at Hillsdale College in Michigan from Ontario, Canada. She is currently studying English and hopes to someday write books and travel to England. She loves fanciful poetry, theater, reading by flashlight, and mint chocolate chip ice cream.

If you liked this piece, check out some of the books and authors we put in front of students every time we administer our exams. We have brief introductions to the lives and works of Aristotle, Seneca the Younger, St. Gregory the Great, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, William Shakespeare, Friedrich Nietzsche, Zora Neale Hurston, and many more here at the Journal. Thank you for reading, and have a happy Fourth of July!

Published on 2nd July, 2024.

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