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  • Writer's pictureSteve Bartholomew

Why read old books?

I have been writing a few book reviews of old books that no one reads anymore. Personally, I find some of these old tomes to be fascinating. Some of them demonstrate how much our perceptions have changed over the past century or so. On the other hand, some demonstrate how much they have not. If you really want to learn history, don't depend on the official history books. Read some old books, magazines and newspapers. Find out what people were seeing and thinking at the time. Not long ago, there was no "media." No radio, television or internet. Movies are slightly more than a hundred years old. Before that, there was printing.
I recently finished reading an old book titled Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome. The subtitle is To say nothing of the dog. The book was published in 1886.

What I find fascinating about this tale is that it's funny. Think about that. How many authors from the 19th C are still funny? There was Mark Twain and a few others. Most humor of that time just doesn't wear well. In fact that's true of most humor from the mid 20th. Stan and Ollie are still funny. Abbott and Costello are not. Listen to an old Bob Hope radio show and you'll hear a lot of stale jokes.
Three Men is the tale of three young friends on a two week vacation, on a boat trip up the Thames. It was based on a real event. The author meant at first to write a travelog, but apparently couldn't keep a straight face. The narrative is interspersed with little anecdotes, as well as passages vividly describing the passing scene.
One of the funniest stories, at least to me, was about someone who was given some cheese. It smelled so bad it drove other passengers out of his train. He brought it home and his wife left him. He tried to throw it in the river, but was fined for polluting the Thames. Finally he donated it to a health spa. The customers loved it because they figured any place with such "strong air" must be good for them.
And then there's mention of how they made "Irish stew" by throwing all their left-overs in a pot together. The dog provided his own donation, a river rat.
There are people today who claim this is one of the funniest books ever written. Critics of the time when it was published hated it. It seems they objected mainly to the fact that humorous stories were mixed up almost at random with passages of genuine poetry. For example, Jerome's description of falling night:
Sunlight is the life-blood of nature. Mother Earth looks at us with such dull, soulless eyes, when the sunlight has died away from out of her. It makes us sad to be with her then; she does not seem to know us or to care for us. She is as a widow who has lost the husband she loved, and her children touch her hand, and look up into her eyes, but gain no smile from her.
Critics of Jerome's day couldn't understand the mixed messages. What kind of book was this, a joke book, or lyric poetry? Of course if they had understood, they might have been writers instead of critics. The book sold thousands of copies, both legal and pirated. It was translated into other languages. People still read it.
Why read old books? Because sometimes they can be really funny. Or beautiful. Or both.

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