A Reader’s Obligation — by RES

*I had asked RES to do a follow up to his post — then politics intervened, and then I lost it, as I tend to lose things in the deluge of emails I  get everyday.  I asked him to send it again yesterday, and I’m glad I did.  Partly because it’s an excellent book, partly because a series of symptoms that had been afflicting me for the last 24h or so resolved itself into stomach flu.  BAD stomach flu.  I’ll be going back to bed now.  The nausea is not at bad as last night, but my head is still going around, so… I’m returning to bed.  Meanwhile enjoy RES’s take on reading older books, which is more or less the same as mine, but far more more reasoned and elegant than the donnybrooks I tend to get into when put on an Heinlein panel.*

A Reader’s Obligation — by RES


Along with the importance of authors recognizing that their writing cannot help but reflect their society — and thus the need to make that reflection as true as possible — there is also an obligation on readers.

C.S. Lewis, in his essay “On The Reading of Old Books”makes the point:

“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books.”

If readers fail to recognize that they are embedded in a particular culture and fail to take into account the ephemerality of that culture, they will make serious and unfair mistakes.  A book, any book, should be recognized as first and foremost an artifact of its time.  Contemporary standards should not be used to judge the work, nor its constituent elements.  Apples should be judged by the standards of apples, not oranges, and books should be accorded the respect of being judged according to the standards of their eras.

Styles change.  It is unreasonable to criticize the style of a book written in 1920, 1870 or 1820 because that style is less streamlined than today’s books.  All of those works are artifacts of a different time, preceding mass media (other than the written word.)  In 1920 there was no television nor radio, competing for audience attention.  Movies were still silent.  People viewed leisure differently than we now do, and did not desire books which could be zipped through while standing on line at the grocery check-out.  It is not unreasonable to prefer contemporary writing, but it is unfair to find fault with books written for a different time and different audience.

Equally, it is unfair to criticize authors for being less enlightened than our contemporary selves.  First, no author is more enlightened than their publisher permits; that is self-evident.  Second, because any author is speaking to a contemporary audience (and only dreams of being read by subsequent generations) the author cannot too far outpace the attitudes and values of their era.  The thoughtful reader should consider carefully the likelihood that our contemporary enlightenment is in part a consequence of that author having pushed the envelope of their culture.  As Newton recognized, “If I have been able to see further, it was only because I stood on the shoulders of giants.”  Do not forget how we climbed to the heights of enlightenment from which we now view the world, and do not casually disparage the trailblazers who we followed to get there.

Jane Austen’s novels, written when the form was young, describe a culture entirely foreign and yet entirely familiar.  The social rules governing actions conceivable to Austen’s characters are largely unfathomable and in many ways irrational to modern eyes.  Yet these characters are motivated by the same things motivating modern readers: status, finding a compatible and desirable mate, “making” their livelihood.  The thoughtful reader looks beneath the surface differences into the deeper commonalties uniting reader and character.  By finding the truth in the society she limned, Austen has depicted a truth about human nature which allows modern readers access to her work if they focus on that truth.

Mark Twain’s Huckleberrry Finn is nowadays famously banned because of its“n-word” use,. Yet at the time it was published the “n-word” was not only in common usage (along with a plethora of other disparaging ethnic and racial slurs), its omission would have made the book far less effective in reaching its audience.  We should recognize that much of that which has rendered the “n-word” social anathema is a consequence of Huckleberry Finn’s effectiveness as literature, its focusing attention on the content of Jim’s character in contrast to the color of his skin.  Readers owe it to the author (and themselves) to view books as artifacts of the cultures in which they were written; you should not get your panties knotted over words that once were common and are now verboten.  Consider, also, that the hyper-sensitivity about that word is a recent artifact; as recently as the 1960s and 70s the word was commonly employed by such stand-up comedians as Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor.  Attention must be paid to the circumstances of a word’s usage and readers are unfair to leap screaming, onto chairs over the mere appearance of a word, no matter how offensive to the contemporary ear.

In his fifth Nero Wolfe novel, Too Many Cooks, Rex Stout accurately depicts race relations in American society of that time.  The solution to the murder depends on accurate understanding of that society:

In one of the best known scenes in the series, Wolfe meets with 14 black men, each of them a member of either the kitchen or the wait staff. A witness to the crime’s aftermath has told Wolfe that she saw a black man, dressed in the livery worn by the resort’s workers, in the dining room at the time that the murder occurred. The man was holding a finger to his lips, hushing another black man who was peering through the door between the dining room and the pantry. Wolfe wants to explore that statement with the kitchen and wait staff.

In contrast to the treatment the men receive from the prosecuting attorney and, particularly, the sheriff, Wolfe offers them courtesy and civility. Even that approach is bootless, though, until Wolfe makes an appeal to their sense of equity. He is looking for the man who was seen in the dining room, and says this:

But if you shield him because he is your color, there is a great deal to say. You are rendering your race a serious disservice. You are helping to perpetuate and aggravate the very exclusions which you justly resent. The ideal human agreement is one in which distinctions of race and color and religion are totally disregarded; anyone helping to preserve those distinctions is postponing that ideal; and you are certainly helping to preserve them.

This speech so impresses Paul Whipple that he blurts out what he saw in the dining room from his vantage point in the pantry: a white man in blackface, warning him to be silent. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Too_Many_Cooks]

Many of the terms referencing those 14 men are patently offensive to the contemporary reader, especially from the lips of narrator Archie Goodwin, but they are an accurate representation of that era and that accuracy is required to resolve the mystery.  It is also by such accurate depiction that the reader of that time was forced to confront the inequity of the racial discrimination afflicting American society.  So long as such bias is allowed to remain in background the culture can overlook it; bringing the unpleasant into the foreground forces readers to recognize and judge their society by it.  If the N-word stops you from reading this book you miss its condemnation of racist attitudes and discrimination.

When reading Rex Stout or Agatha Christie the sensible reader will adjust (or ignore) monetary amounts. $50,000 is a tidy sum today, in 1938 it represented about ten years income for a middle class worker.  Its power as motivation for criminal actions was correspondingly greater, and any reader who dismisses that significance is failing to appreciate the book being read.  Readers will make an effort (and smart authors will provide references) to appreciate changes in values.

Science Fiction is especially susceptible to this type of error.  The most visible example is the ubiquity of slide-rules for calculation.  But through the Fifties and Sixties Science Fiction was primarily a field of, by and for engineers (whether working in that field or not.)  For an engineer of that era it was taken for granted that people would retain slipsticks: it was the emblem of the professional.  It was an essential skill of their profession and nothing they saw indicated any replacement imaginable.

Other factors are less blatant but more pervasive.  Sarah has frequently commented about the views of population growth, of Malthusianism held by SF writers of that era.  Writing in a dynamic, aggressive culture they expected homo sap to procreate.  Education being much more available and far less expensive, they conceived no reason to think people would limit family size.  They grew to adulthood in a culture in which large families were the norm, they saw improvements in medicine and health care as increasing human happiness and lifespans.  It was only natural they would project the trendline into the future.

Computers were well known to these writers: they were large, unwieldy and expensive to build, to buy, to maintain.  Nothing they knew (and many of them were far more knowledgeable about computers than 90% of the people of that era) suggested this was anything likely to change.  Expecting them to have anticipated modern solid-state circuitry is unreasonable and readers who sneer at their failure merely display their own callowness.

It has long been trendy for critics to assail many of Robert Heinlein’s views as retrograde, as antediluvian.  Such critics miss the fact that such thinking was highly forward for his culture, was often already pushing the limits on what Heinlein’s audience was ready and able to accept, and frequently were the opinions of Heinlein’s characters.  As Niven’s Law reminds us, “There is a technical, literary term for those who mistake the opinions and beliefs of characters in a novel for those of the author. The term is ‘idiot.'”

It is vain preening to disparage Heinlein’s portrayal of women or culture.  He was writing for a culture that was less enlightened than we today, as future generations will look down upon ours.  What matters is not the market in which Heinlein wrote but how he pushed that market, making it able to change and accept ideas leading to today’s enlightened thinking.  Given he was primarily writing books for sell to young men Heinlein’s representation of sexual relations was remarkably advanced for his times.  To focus on the flaws is to overlook his vastly greater strengths and the ways in which he pushed societal change.  It is to obsess over “the characteristic mistakes” of his generation while ignoring “the characteristic mistakes” of our own.  Decrying his women as unrealistic stereotypes overlooks one salient fact: they were based on real women.  That they might not fit the critic’s views on proper portrayal says more about the limitations and agenda of the critic than of Heinlein.

Asimov’s Foundation series needs to be read as reflecting the culture in which he was immersed.  A man of the Left, Doctor Asimov had fully imbibed the memes of his culture, seeing the world though the lens of socialism’s perspective on the forces of History and the relative unimportance of individuals.  His view was an expression of the idea of broad forces pushing society.  The themes and content of his work were shaped by the culture in which he developed and the audience for whom he wrote.  It is as foolish to apply contemporary moral standards and values to his or Heinlein’s work as it is to apply them to Austen, Dumas or Verne.

There are a few constant standards of good writing: grammar, vivid word imagery, engaging plots.  The modern reader has a duty to ignore the characteristic mistakes of a given period (including their own) and approach the work with an open mind.  Many an incredible tale is based upon even more improbable actual events and individuals.

In the visual arts there is a notable development of technique.  Painters learned how to create perspective, they learned pointillism and chiaroscuro techniques but no intelligent person evaluates Roman and Egyptian art by modern standards.  In film we have the development of story-telling techniques, addition of sound and color.  Anybody dismissing the brilliance of Chaplin and Keaton for being silent, who disdains the Marx Brothers for being in Black & White denies himsel some of the most marvelous of films.  Camera and acting technique evolve and it is absurd to not appreciate that evolution.  Anybody watching the Thirties Flash Gordon serials is reasonable to disdain the acting, writing and costuming, but to sneer at their rockets as “a pod with a sparkler up its butt” is to fail to understand that, at that time, that was how rockets looked when they flew.  The even burn and tremendous force of post WWII rockets would not have been believable in that earlier decade.

What matters about past authors is not that they have so much wrong with them, but rather how much they still speak to modern readers, especially if those readers do their duty and remember with whom they speak.  You would not conversationally engage your grandparent in the same manner you use for your parents, your peers, your children, your grandchildren.  When reading a book not of your time, read it as an relic of its own time and measure it against that time.

78 responses to “A Reader’s Obligation — by RES

  1. Wayne Blackburn

    It’s always amazing to me to find out (I keep forgetting) that people will discount the time period that a work comes from when criticizing it. It’s so automatic for me to take that into consideration that I can hardly imagine that anyone would not, even though I should know better.

    • Not considering the book’s context is a partial legacy of postmodernism. Texts have no existence except as texts; context is meaningless. Sort of the inverse of archaeology.

      • Also the inverse of sanity. Oh, wait, you said postmodernism. of course it’s the inverse of sanity.

        • One of the earliest literary tips my parents gave me was “check the publishing date.”

        • Agreed, Sarah. My first introduction to Derrida and Foucoult led to my staring at the professor with a “you’ve got to be [kidding] me” look. He insisted that we know the, ahem, “stuff,” but did not insist that we take it seriously. That’s for the Lit-Crit and hyphenated-studies majors.

        • It has been years since I have seen it, but in Northern Exposure towards the end of its run, the character Chris Stevens is seeking to get a degree in English literature. Working diligently to obtain his diploma through distance learning he is confronted by two professors with very different methods of analysis, one more of a traditionalist and the other a postmodern deconstructionist, both of whom must pass his work. All this results in a series of nightmarish dreams, and a line (I am unable to find exact reference), which I have never forgotten. Chris is in a battlefield and William Shakespeare has been mortally wounded:

          William Shakespeare: Thus am I slain.
          Chris Stevens: Oh, Shakes. Shakes. Talk to me. [gives him a cigaret]
          William Shakespeare: [coughs] ‘Tis a far, far better thing I do…
          Chris Stevens: Shakes –
          William Shakespeare: Yeah, Sarge?
          Chris Stevens: That’s Dickens.

          (Season 6, episode 17 The Graduate)

          In terrific remorse Chris awakes with a scream, ‘They’re killing Shakespeare.’ For some reason it makes me want to say with fist in air, ‘Deconstruct that you silly twits.’

      • Wayne Blackburn

        I also realized something else about that this morning. Ignoring context allows the reader to deride a work and feel superior; in the same way some people will point out flaws in others in order to make themselves feel superior (generally while ignoring their own flaws).

        • Oh, yes. I figured that while blogging for the Heinlein bio. I figured that was my unpardonable crime.

          • There is a superciliousness to the academic community that is flushing through the education system. Anyone who thinks (THINKS) they are educated make fun of anyone NOT on the same team. Peer pressure strikes again.

            Many of these people can’t see past their noses–

  2. RES very interesting– I enjoyed what you had to say.

  3. Bookmarking this for when the argument comes up again–and it will.

  4. Once again, we have a (tiny, tiny) family discussion before we go to see a play or movie. When was it written? What was happening then?

    • Too often people ignorantly dismiss the importance of period films (especially) because they fail to take into account the context of the intended audience. Casablanca is different when you don’t know how the war will end.

      We attended a theatrical showing of Red River where the audience was invited to join a film class’s discussion afterward. One of the students complained that the stampede was “soooo cliched”, not realizing that Hawks’ was the first such in a major film, so powerful that later filmmakers were referencing that sequence every time they used a stampede (and many re-used the same footage.) It ain’t a cliche the first time it is said.

  5. One of the nice things about having a Kindle is the ready availability of old books priced very low or free. I’ve beed reading or re-reading more old books this past year.

    Most of the old books we will read now have stood the test of time. Some, but only some, of the contemporay books will do the same.

    I’m about half way through the Leatherstocking Tales. Cooper’s style can be a little slow going. But many of our supposedly uneducated ancestors read and enjoyed them well enough. I wonder how many high school or even college students could read one of them today. Natty Bummppo’s views on race would certainly not be acceptable today. But, I think you would have a hard time finding a modern fictional character more thoroughly honorable than Deerslayer/Hawkeye/Pathfinder.

    Anyway, I’ve got a lot more old books on my to read list. Still plan to read some new ones though, including some by our blog hostess.

    • RivRiver, Me Too. Last winter I came home from a AAUW book sale with a couple of library discards of W.F. Cooper’s books. I adored “Deerslayer”. The story pulls one along, and I underlined furiously, quotations and text, thinking, this is still true today!

    • I think I was in 7th grade when I essayed the Leatherstocking tales. I recall them as a hard slog but worth the effort. And they certainly taught a great deal about the era in which they were written.

      Anybody think you get the same adult if you feed a boy Holden Caulfield or, Thorby Rudbeck?

    • As we loose our shared heritage of readings from the past we can ponder the viewer or reader of M*A*S*H who has no real idea of the reference in the nickname of Captain Benjamin Franklin Pierce. Not much of a loss when it come to appreciating the material presented. True.

      Now, consider how does the loss of shared common knowledge effect the understanding and impact of the opening line, ‘Call me Ishmael.’ of Moby Dick, and therefore your understanding of the whole of it?

      • Rachel weeping for her lost children. If you do not know the religious context of Moby Dick, you lose, what, at least a quarter of the story?

    • I dunno — I’m with Twain about the Leatherstocking Tales.

      (Note that Project Gutenberg — gutenberg.org — has a lot of old, free books as well. Including the most awesome dictionary ever! http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5402 –also available for free at Amazon, and on the iBookstore, for those who don’t want to side-load.)

  6. As far as “enlightenment” goes, it may be wise to remember that in a century, our views on less enlightened eras, or rather those we deem less enlightened eras, may be held up as exactly what is benighted about it. We would be the last to know if they were. George Bernard Shaw denounced G. K. Chesterton to his face as backwards and benighted and cruel for not supporting forcible eugenic sterilization. And those who regarded Communism as forward thinking and capitalism as backwards are too many to be numbered. And segregation was implemented by Progressive politicians; it was the civil rights movement that was retrogressive, wanting to go back to the law of the Reconstruction era — and right.

    • Indeed. I read “Daddy Long Legs” for the first time a few months ago and was mortified by the character’s earnest, starry-eyed response to learning about socialism.

      Okay, so maybe the average modern reader won’t see it as a bad thing. But they will.

      • And for how many decades have many readers regarded it as a limited move in the right direction, a benighted soul slowly groping toward the light, and made allowances for her not being a Marxist?

  7. I truly love reading older writers; Thomas B. Costain and Lloyd Douglas are old friends. Historical fiction has long been a favorite, and it seems to me, at least, that these types of books written 60-70 years ago (about history from several hundred to a thousand years or so ago) feel more accurate than many written in a more modern style. But then, I tend to be an “old soul” I think; I have a books of essays from late 19th century that is a prized possession. “The Golden Gems of Life” circa 1880 by Ferguson & Allen, with it’s marbled endpapers and leather binding is a real beauty. It takes some time and thought to appreciate some of the essays, but as Mary says, many of them do shine a light pretty clearly on what exactly is wrong with our society today.

    • Have you read all the novels by George Heyer, Agatha Christie, dorothy L. Sayers? I have them all,in boxes under the bed so I can find something “decent” to read if I have nothing else in the pipeline.

      • Ah yes, it’s been many years – but I have indeed!

      • My god, the very concept of having “nothing left in the pipeline”. I plan to let the pipeline remaining when I die serve as my very large funeral pyre.

        • Wayne Blackburn

          Since I have had practically no budget for books for a few years, and never have had a large one, I have read all books I own no less than 10 times, except for the few that I have been getting with the Amazon gift card my boss gives me every year. I haven’t quite had time to run up the repeats on all of them yet.

          • Wayne– if you would like to be a beta reader just say so ;-)– If you like strange stories, (mine are supernatural, some horror, and etc– with a little romance thrown in sometimes), I would be happy to send you drafts– to get your input. If not– well– it was a suggestion. But offering to be a beta reader to some of the authors here would probably help your reading budget. (Just an idea)

            • Wayne Blackburn

              I have resisted offering to do that because I don’t do a very good job critiquing writing. I’d certainly welcome the chance, but I would also need some very clear guidelines on what kind of feedback was expected, because I’m likely to focus on the wrong things otherwise.

              • Well – you don’t need to be a copy editor– sometimes it helps to have a reader say “that part of the story didn’t make sense.” I have a reader who just likes to read my stories, so I send them to him. If he sees something wrong i.e. a lot of spelling errors, he’ll tell me to recheck it. My other beta reader likes to check every sentence. 🙂

                My guidelines are –If the reader finds the story logical (in its story universe) and doesn’t find anything terribly wrong– then that is all I am looking for. Other writers may have different ideas. Mine is if the story immerses you, then you won’t see the mistakes. I am happy with that too. 😉

                • Wayne Blackburn

                  Well, you’re certainly welcome to send me anything you’d like to eukonidor at gmail dot com. I liked Billy the Kid, so I think I would get along with your writing well.

              • Wayne, I can use a beta reader as well. Mostly for continuity and for the “um, what on [planet name] just happened here? And who is this character anyway” sort of things. I’ve spent so long in “my world” that I forget which ends are still loose and which have been resolved.

            • If you are looking for a copy-editor, I’m your girl. Things like ‘loose’ for ‘lose’, or the incorrect to, too, two, are my specialty. I can also catch things like “Wasn’t she wearing a green sweater before, not a black t-shirt.” I’m not so good at story-editing, though.

              But if any authors who read Sara’s blog want something copy-edited, just send me a note at my screen name at gmail and tell me how soon you need it. If I’m not working a 12 hour shift when I get your message, it’ll probably be within a day or two. Unless you’re asking me to check a 100,000 word novel!

              • I’ll keep that in mind Naleta– I have such a problem seeing mistakes in my own writings, but I am a terror with other people’s writings. 😉

              • Throwing my hat in the ring, I’m available for similar work as well for any regular here needing it done. Copy editing, continuity, and general phrasing and coherency I can cover. Story work (characterization, good use of three act/three disaster/crescendo/Campbellian epic forms, etc.) not so much, though if I notice something I can say something of course. My time is a little more pinched (I’m just now getting on top of things after two weeks of being slammed) but if it’s not a rush job there should be no problem. Free for a known Usaian (unless you insist), below market to other frequent posters. 🙂

          • I saw you put away a couple of ribs the night of the mastodon/mammoth party. That’s not something done easily. Anyway, you get a free copy of the resulting novel, “Lost!”. Let me know what format you want it in. DEFINITELY human-wave!

            • Wayne Blackburn

              I couldn’t seem to find your email address, so: Whichever is easiest, between DOC, DOCX, PDF, or MOBI. I don’t currently have anything to read EPUB, but I’m sure I could get it easily enough.

  8. I first read Heinlein when I was a grade schooler. Found one, and read every title I could get my hands on. ABSOLUTELY the best SciFi author ever (Sorry, Sarah!). I have never understood why people say his female characters are “unrealistic” or “stereotyped”. OK, maybe in some of the earlier juveniles, but most of his female characters were role models for me as a young girl, especially in a male dominated sub-culture. Hilda from “Number of the Beast” was my favorite! Not as strong or big as the guys but smart, tough, and a born leader, AND they still love the men in their lives. People saying that’s not realistic? I would argue (strenuously), but it’s certainly a great ideal for a girl to look to.

  9. What I would hope the future condems this era for is the very idea that it’s a good thing to ‘ban something’ because it disagrees with what’s currently “correct”

    The fact that people are arguing of if it’s right to ban a specific book for a specific reason rather than arguing over the very concept of trying to ban something is the problem.

    I think the rise of the Internet, where the content is outside the control of any organization will defeat this in the long run, but it’s going to be rough going before this wins out.

    I’m not just talking about banning Huck Fin because they use the word ‘nigger’, but also things like trying to tell facebook that they have to ban all accounts used by Hamas, making flag burning illegal, making it a crime to say the Holocost didn’t happen, etc

    None of these things can change what someone actually thinks, all they can do is try to surpress public statements of opinion. I say try because they are al not only unsuccessful at doing so, but in most cases are counterproductive, drawing attention to the very ideas that they are trying to surpress (see the “Strisand Effect”)

    One way or another, a substantial chunk current thinking is going to be seen as being silly

    either the idea that communications can be controlled will look silly

    or the people who think that communication can be completely unrestricted will look silly

    I think that history so far shows that all attempts to surpress comunnications have failed (not only Soviet era control of photocopiers, but going back to the American Revolution and the publication of seditious pamphlets)

    • Personally, I suspect they are trying to protect the purity of their broadmindness by avoiding all that might sully it.

      • It has been my observation that for many folk, asserting their broadmindedness and tolerance is far preferred to exercising it.

    • This!

      The flag-burning issue is one of my buttons. Ceremonial cremation is the proper and approved method of disposing of flags too worn or tattered to display. Those who say to make flag-burning against the law are guilty of not thinking things through. grrrrrr

    • None of these things can change what someone actually thinks, all they can do is try to surpress public statements of opinion.

      The effort is less to control what anybody thinks than, as Orwell so ably explored in 1984 to control what anybody is able to think, by denying them the words or concepts with which to think such things.

      This is why they shout racist/sexist/homophobe — to shut down thought, to prevent thought that is double-plus ungood.

      And because so many engage groupthink, expressing naught but politically correct opinions, they are deterred from thinking novel thoughts, or at any rate, sharing such. There is a reason it was a little boy who exposed the Emperor’s tailors in the tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Studies have demonstrated that people will even deny what they directly experienced as true if the group asserts a different “truth.”

      Look at the fall of Ceaușescu to grasp why the politicians so desperately strive to prevent re-imagining the World.

  10. RES makes some really good points. Motivated me to order Heinlein’s “Red Planet” and “Between Planets” for the umpteenth re-read. Science has now altered reality, but skating the canals of Mars, Martians, Venusian swamps, and dragons named Sir Issac Newton are just to good to leave on the shelf.

    • Podkayne of Mars!

      • Starman Jones! Weirdly, and for no reason I can explain I never read it until six months ago. When I read it, my older kid told me “Oh, yeah, it’s my favorite Heinlein…”

        My own favorites The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, Puppet Masters, Have Spacesuit (My family nickname was PeeWee — because my brother thought I WAS Peewee at around ten), The Door Into Summer, Friday…. um… it is time to re-read.

        • Given the recent political events, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress and/or Revolt in 2100 is going to be on the to be re-read list soon. Door Into Summer is a fun ride for sure.

          • He expected the First Prophet to be of a variety of prophetic religion. He missed that communism IS a prophetic religion. He got the funny name right, though, so props for him.

            And if this hasn’t occurred to anyone else, I apologize, but I’ve been thinking it for five years now.

            • Maybe it’s time for someone (hint-hint) to write”The Sound of His Wings” – Heinlein”s title for the unwritten story of the Prophet”s rise to power.
              Jamie Foxx, some black entertainer, just called Obama ‘Our Lord and Savior Barack Obama’. Scary stuff indeed!

              • Someone has considered it. But someone gets as depressed as Heinlein is said to have gotten. So, someone thinks she’ll write Through Fire, and Betrayal and Blood of Heroes, the next books of the Earth revolution.

            • I do want to see Mike (the computer) come back– I went to the last page last night and realized why I had a hard time remembering the entire story of “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.” Heinlein did such a good job with turning the computer into a personality.

        • Pfffft – it is always time to reread RAH.

          • You got that right- recent re-reads include Rolling Stones, Starbeast, Tunnel in the Sky, Citizen of the Galaxy and Rocketship Galeleo. I originally read Citizen as a serial in Astounding, and the others back in the 6th grade. Juveniles maybe, but more meat than most contemporary fantasy.

            • Yes! RAH’s Juveniles are worth reading and re-reading. Our family used to pass the time on the car on trips with one of the adults reading out loud. (It started when The Spouse, who was re-reading Moon while I was driving, unexpectedly turned back to the beginning and started up. I had a misspent youth and the only Heilein I had read was Stranger.) For me one of the greatest pleasures of this was when The Spouse shared the RAH Juveniles with The Daughter and me.

              The powers that be are doing a grave disservice to readers everywhere. Anyone who has sat and listened to a young person describe the ins and out of a gaming world can tell you they are quite capable of keeping many story threads in mind if they want. Still, along with making them ‘relevant’* the publishers have simplified Juveniles to ‘make them more accessible.’ In the process they have made the effort of reading them steadily less rewarding. (I believe they are doing the same for adults as well.) Since there are so many other forms of entertainment vying for the reader’s attention why waste time on pabulum?

              * Re prior blog discussions – stories lacking hope, strength or inspiration and relevant to whom?

    • I just re-read “Citizen of the Galaxy,” which is my fav. of Heinlein’s books. Did he ever do a sequel to that one? It was one of the books I read at a young age (13 or 14) and it really influenced me. I did enjoy Friday when I read it in the mid to late 80s and want to read it again.

      • I acquired this as an audiobook — terrific reader, BTW; he gives old Balsam just a hint of Sean Connery — and have enjoyed it several times while in transit. Because the exigencies of traffic can sometimes distract, a familiar book can be the best choice for RWD (Reading While Driving.)

        I was somewhen around 9th grade the first time I read Citizen and have found more lurking within with every reading.

    • Hunt, RAH may have gotten some of the details wrong, but those details are not what he was writing about, any more than Burroughs wrote about Mars. That is one of the great joys of SF: the Mars of the heart is greater than the Mars of old Sol’s system.

  11. My early reading was so scattered . . . historicals and older mysteries where the setting was so obviously “not now” were read with the understanding that the setting controlled the potential reactions and so forth. SF was different. I guess I always thought of it as “written yesterday.” Very odd. I mean, in retrospect, ee “Doc” Smith’s apex female was the most incredibly fantastic nurse ever. At the time I read it, it thought it was howlingly funny. But I never expected the Count of Monte Cristo to whip out a . . . laser . . . gun . . .

    No. I did not just think that. The treasure was not a chest full of future tech with easy to understand instructions. I am not writing this . . . Lalalalala! I’m not listening . . .

  12. Like many of the above commenters, I am a bit boggled whenever I see someone who doesn’t take the era into account when they read.

    Of course, I still have moments when I read something from the past and am a little put off or even offended by it. But I’m more likely to make a modern book a “DNF” (did not finish) than one from an older era, if it offends me.

    And, of course, there are plenty of incidents where I will miss the genuine context of something, but that’s just from ignorance rather than willing ignorance and throwing on blinders.

    • It rather depends on why you are reading a particular book. If you are reading it in order to display your excellent taste, your enlightenment, your virtue …

      It always amazes me when critics insist on displaying their ignorance, their provincialism, their ethnocentrism, their oikophobia and then blame the author.

  13. An excellent post. Judging the past through the filter of today’s current attitudes is sadly commonplace today. There are major SF online outposts who shall remain nameless that are particularly bad about this. Oh, hell, let’s just dispense with the namelessness—Tor’s website is awful about this. They seem to take great joy in reviewing older books to see if they meet with the dictates of current political correctness.

    We see this a lot in movies as well, with up-and-coming hipster filmmakers churning out retro spoofs targeting the TV shows and films of earlier generations, all without apparent understanding of why those shows might have been popular in the first place. I eagerly anticipate the day when future hipster filmmakers start making movies spoofing today’s hipster directors and their obsession with lampooning entertainments from the 1960s and 1970s.