by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Do you read books about the past, or about now, or the future?
This morning I started work on an essay about African-American fiction in the 19th century. It began with a question that had popped into my head: “Who was the first black novelist in our country?” This kind of fun sleuthing on the internet inspires me to write essays. I quickly came across articles about how Henry Louis Gates, Jr. had discovered a long forgotten book in the early 1980s called Our Nig; or, Sketches From the Life of a Free Black (1859) by Harriet Wilson. That made me want to research a number of other things. Have earlier novels been uncovered since? What were the second, third, fourth, fifth novels? What about short stories? Were any bestsellers in their day. Before long I realized I could spend weeks on this project.
I usually think of several ideas a day for researching and writing. I start work on just a fraction of these ideas, and complete work on damn few. Another idea I got yesterday was to write about Men Into Space, a one-season TV show of 38-episodes (1959-60) that worked to be very realistic about space flight. A lady in my online book club mentioned it and I was surprised I hadn’t known about it before now. It’s not available on DVD except as DVD-R sales through places like eBay (because it’s in the public domain). It is available to watch online at YouTube. However, I did find a book, Men Into Space by John C. Fredriksen that extensively writes about the series. I’d love to write a book like this – if I could focus my mind for a year or two.
While researching Men Into Space I came across another book The Spacesuit Film: A History 1918-1969 by Gary Westfahl that covered Men Into Space as well as other movies and television shows that prefigured the space age. Hell, this exactly the kind of book I’d love to write too. But can you imagine the time it would take? But wouldn’t it be fun to watch all those old movies and television shows analyzing them for how they imagined the future? However, how many people read such books? I want to, but the $39.95 price for the paperback stops me. Even the $19.99 price for the Kindle edition is making me think long and hard.
This suggests another idea for researching. How many people buy and read these esoteric kinds of history books? How many people love to study tiny segments of forgotten history? I have this nagging desire to write something longer than blog essays. This month was supposed to be the month I began a book-length project. And I did start on an idea, but once again got side-tracked by too many distractions. But I’m back to focusing my mind on the project.
I have to ask myself, who is going to read what I write and why? Why spend a year, or several, writing something few people will want to read? It occurred to me this morning I could divide books into three categories: about the past, about the present, about the future. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction.
I’ve always loved science fiction, which is future-oriented. But when I think about writing about science fiction, that’s past-oriented. Because I write for Book Riot, I can also write about contemporary publishing. I even think about writing books like To Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death by Mark O’Connell, which is essentially about how science fiction is affecting our world today.
I also came across this pledge drive for Farah Mendlesohn yesterday. She is writing a book about Robert A. Heinlein and is looking for backers. She’s gotten 143 supportors so far. This is also exactly the kind of book I’d love to write – but is that the rough number of people who would be interested in reading it?
I’m now worrying that I’m spending too much time thinking about the past. Is that because I’m getting older and it’s natural for aging folks to analyze yesterday? I assume that many people who like my blog do so because they are somewhat like me – they are older and thinking about when they grew up, and we all loved some of the same things.
I believe my less popular essays at Book Riot are due to writing about topics that bore their demographic readership, which tilts young and female. This makes me wonder if I should accept that I like to write about things that appeal to a subset of aging baby boomers, or if I should work to write about topics that have a wider appeal across different age groups.
My guess is writing about contemporary subjects or about the future has more universal appeal. I wonder if writing about today or tomorrow isn’t more psychologically positive for both me and readers. But I’m so fascinated by the past, especially esoteric subjects.
I’m currently reading The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman about Paul Erdős, a brilliant mathematician, and The Five Gospels, about the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who work to figure out what the historical Jesus actually said. Both of these books are intensely fascinating. Both of these books are about the past and have little relevance to today or tomorrow.
I have to wonder if I’ve given up on tomorrow because I don’t have much hope for the future, either for myself, or the planet, and I’m finding pleasure and meaning by exploring the past.
I’ve always loved science fiction but when I read science fiction today I’m usually very critical of works that are based on unrealistic ideas. I don’t believe in all those far out futures like I used to. As a writing challenge maybe I should work to write about positive futures that could be realistic, ones we can hope to find. Yet, my most popular essay ever is, “50 Reasons Why Humans Are Too Stupid To Survive.” Gloom and doom does sell. Hell, the TV shows my friends and I binge-watch focus on awful people and horrible events.
Writing is about focus. Writing a book is about intense focus over a great time span. I’m wondering if choosing to write about the past isn’t a way of escaping the present or future? I also wonder if writing about the future isn’t a way to give myself hope for tomorrow?
Maybe you can’t relate to this topic because it’s about writing. Think of it this way. Do you love watching old movies and television shows, or new ones? Do you listen to old music or new music? If you’re mentally young, no matter what your age is, you’ll be enjoying whatever is new.
I’m being more and more drawn into the past. 1950s movie westerns, mid-20th-century written science fiction, 1960s romantic movie comedies, 19th-century novels, 1950s jazz, 1940s film noir, 1920s modernistic literature, Victorian scientific romances, etc. Growing up, I always thought about the future…
7 thoughts on “Looking Forwards v. Looking Backwards”
“Clotel: or, The President’s Daughter” is the first novel published by an African American – it was published in London in 1853 while William Wells Brown, the author, was still living there following his final escape from slavery, an education, and the purchase of his freedom by a British couple. The book was too graphic for publication (it was basically anti-slavery propaganda) in the US until 1969. Yes, I have read it and it’s okay – interesting. He wrote a bunch more but they were toned down a lot.
The memoir “12 Years a Slave” by Solomon Northup was published the same year. That book is the tale of his life as a captured slave. (He’d been a free black in New York.)
Personally I enjoy books about the past whether they’re historical fiction or actual classics – which are set in the times in which they’re written although there are some classic works of historical fiction – “A Tale of Two Cities” is classic historical fiction. And I enjoy history books – sometimes about minute details of some event and other times broad overviews. It just depends on the subject and how it’s written.
I also enjoy science fiction – or future fiction. It’s mostly dystopian stuff right now.
For the last year – since the election – I’ve been reading nonfiction about current times and how we got to where we are.
I have no real interest in writing – I like reading and keeping a blog about what I read.
And I’m not interested in much from the 1950s or ’60s although I know a lot of people are. Just not me. I pretty much keep up with the current news and fiction as well as nonfiction. Fiction has really changed – I suppose the same is true of movies.
I had read about Clotel. I was looking for the first novel published in the U.S. I think there was even an earlier novel by a slave published in France in French. I’m now trying to figure out what is the oldest African-American novel published in the U.S. that is currently well-read today and considered a classic like Hemingway or Fitzgerald? Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston might be one. There were many earlier writers of nonfiction, poetry, and short stories.
Becky, because you run the nonfiction book club you read lots of books about contemporary events. Yeah, I don’t see you as someone that looks backward much.
But I was a history major and now a history buff. That said, I like to read the contemporary interpretations of history. I also enjoy historical fiction but again – it’s contemporary – and I like the classics of the 19th century.
http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/chronautobio.html#1740 – a list of slave narratives going back to 1740 but not necessarily currently published or available. Most of them are memoirs, I think. Clotel is a novel based on the reality of enslavement – much of it is from a woman’s point of view.
I’m considerably older than you are, and I have very little interest in the past, particularly mine and what I supposedly share with others of my generation (which I don’t). Likewise, the more esoteric a work about the past is, the less interested I am. But I’ve always been an outlier. We need a broad understanding of the relevant past in order to maintain a reasonable perspective on the present and future, but for most people going deeper is an exercise in irrelevance — scholars writing for scholars.
That’s interesting Catana. So, what are your hobbies and interests then? Are you focused on the now, or are you even forward looking?
No hobbies. Reading, thinking, writing are what I spend my time on. I’m interested in the present mostly as it relates to potential futures, and as repeating human patterns from which we don’t seem to learn anything that changes our thinking or behavior. In that way, the past strongly influences any possible futures. To me, the past is a tool to help us understand the present, and possibly the future, not a subject to study for study’s sake.
As Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”