when does a book become too old-fashioned?

As many of you know, I work at a joint school/public library. Although I am not actually a school librarian (though I have taken some education classes, which were enough to convince me I didn’t want to be a teacher), I try my best to balance those two duties. My co-worker, who is paid partly by the school, handles all the school money, but since we’re both there all the time, it’s not as though one of us is all school and the other all public.

This year I’ve been pushing to get into classrooms and to get classes into the library to learn about how to use the library. Since all of Wyoming’s community colleges are a part of the WYLD network, it’s advantageous for students to learn a little about the catalog now, even if it seems beside the point in a library as small as ours. I’ve gone to talk to the 8th grade studies skills class once, and they’ve come to the library for a sort of OPAC scavenger hunt. Next I’m going to talk to them a bit about looking for good information on the web. As soon as their SmartBoard gets fixed, I’m going to go visit the 5th grade. And on Friday, the 6th grade teacher stopped by to ask if there was any possibility I might be interested in doing some book talks. “Would I ever!!!” I said. (After all, I am one of those people who became a librarian in part because I love to read. I did three mini-booktalks during my 15 minute presentation to the faculty this year, and I think that was a good idea.)

And so now I am thinking about what books I want to talk about. I’ll do some new ones, of course, but as the new ones are more prominently displayed, I’d like to look as well at some older books, things that may have gotten lost in the stacks, even in our tiny library, which has about 25,000 items all told. I have therefore been thinking some about the books I read when I was that age. Some seem like shoo-ins for inclusion, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which I haven’t read since I was 12 or 13, but I’m happy to be reacquainted with it) and Ender’s Game, which I didn’t discover until graduate school but would have gobbled up had I run across it earlier–and sticking with the fantasy/SF theme, I do wish we had a copy of Max and Me and the Time Machine–I may just have to go out and acquire one). Others are good possibilities: The Root Cellar is historical fiction, but it part of it is set in the present, so it has some appeal for people who don’t want to be plunged entirely in the past.

But many of the books I read when I was in grade school are a bit more problematic. I was an inveterate reader of old books. Partly that was because my mother and grandmother gave me so many of them, and partly it was because the new books at my school were always checked out, and I was too timid to ask how to get on the waiting list. In fact, there’s a Jill Paton Walsh book that was booktalked at the beginning of one year that I have yet to read.

So I raided the stacks. It became a kind of game with me to find books that hadn’t been checked out in ten or twenty years. My mother found Quest in the Desert for me one day in fourth grade when she was visiting for some parent function. That was 1984 or 1985, and its last checkout had been in 1972. (It’s a great book, but not a good one to read before you eat–it concerns a naturalist’s trip through Mongolia, and includes descriptions of the things he was given to eat, such as sheep’s eyeballs. We had silent reading right before lunch that year, and it’s a wonder I ate as much of the school lunch as I did.)

I read anything by Louisa May Alcott that I could get my hands on, and some–An Old-Fashioned Girl, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom (which surely must be owned by more than two WorldCat libraries, but I’m too lazy to sort through pages of results)–I’ve read more times than I care to admit. At one point I decided I was going to read all of the Newbery award winners, and I found wonders like The Trumpeter of Krakow and real clunkers like Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, which I don’t think I ever finished. My mother read The Wheel on the School to me when I was in first or second grade, and I found more by DeJong later, though sadly none were as good. I found a clutch of early Andre Norton fantasy books one day, and my mother grabbed Have Space Suit, Will Travel from amidst the Heinleins (with firm instructions not to read any more recent Heinlein titles).

We have some of these books in our library, and I may even try to pull a few. Other books that I read then we don’t have, and I must admit a certain sense of relief. I adored the Little Colonel books, which concern the child and young adulthood of a girl growing up on a plantation in the early twentieth century, but I would have some trepidation about them sitting on a shelf. My mother gave the first one to me and said, quite sternly, that while I could read these books, there were certain things I needed to understand. “For one thing,” she said, “we do not call people ‘darkies.'” (I regret that she gave me no similar warnings about the author’s portrayal of romance; the last book in the series is The Little Colonel’s Knight Comes Riding, which should give you some idea.)

Of course, “I absolutely love this book!” is never a good way to begin a booktalk, and I long since resigned myself to the idea that books that I like are not necessarily going to be the ones that other people like, and vice versa. But I wonder also about how long a book can be viable. I started rereading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy this weekend, and while I find it as entertaining as ever (even more so, in some instances, as I get more of it), I wonder if it won’t seem peculiar and antiquated to the “Millennial” generation we’re supposed to view as new and different. I get a little sick of reading about how this generation is unlike any one that has come before, but at the same time, there may be some point to it. Can kids who would find my TI-81 graphic calculator ancient really relate to early Heinlein novels, where people are forever pulling slide rules out of their pockets? Garfield books are as popular as they were when I was in grade school, but I don’t imagine that the Bloom County books we inhaled in sixth grade would have much meaning to people who weren’t even born when Reagan was president.

Backlist is a big what makes libraries valuable: we have books you can’t find anywhere else (or couldn’t before the age of the internet). I’m never going to get ride of all the old books in the library, but I do find myself wondering how I can make them remain vital–make them come to be as real as the Velveteen Rabbit.

Post Script:

Apparently I am not the world’s only fan of the Little Colonel–that shouldn’t be surprising, but I never cease to be amazed by the internet.

4 thoughts on “when does a book become too old-fashioned?”

  1. I adored the Little Colonel, and Alcott’s Rose books, and all the odd, old fiction I found at my grandmother’s house on my summer vacations. You are SURELY not alone, but I understand your concerns about aging fiction. I have faith that the world has lots of people like you and me, and so someone will always find joy in an older book that’s less relevant to their daily lives. I have equal faith in the knowledge that not everyone will look past the digital watch jokes to the commentary beneath them.

    Good luck, and have fun!

  2. I’d like to think I steered you to good books–do you remember The Good Master, Kate Seredy? and The Five Little Peppers? and Anne of Green Gables, I think the first “chapter book” I ever gave you (as an Easter present). Did you ever read Kim (which I still re-read)?
    But let the record state, I object to late Heinlein not for all the sex, but for the increasing political views. Heavy-handed, simplistic, and the stories he was so good at got lost. I forgive him his politics in the early stuff; the stories were terrific.

  3. @Jenica–I’m always glad to know I’m not alone (although I have yet to find another person outside my family who has read Cousins by Evan Commager. Such a person must exist, though, right?

    @Mom–yeah, would have included Kate Seredy and the Peppers books, I just didn’t get around to it. And Anne of Green Gables was the book that convinced me to read to myself at night instead of having you read to me. I never have made it through Kim, but I’ll keep trying. I adore The Jungle Book and The Just So Stories.

  4. Cousins by Evan Commager? Old fashioned? Who cares? You bet I read it…and am desperately looking to be able to read it again!

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