Book as time machine

When you open a book and start reading are you inviting the people of the book into your home or are you visiting another time and place?

There’s a phenonemon around at the moment that seems to be influencing literature and art that I call BICO groupthink, because of the recent kerfuffle on social media about the words to a song written for a film in 1947—yes, Baby it’s Cold Outside, and groupthink because so many don’t do the intellectual exercise that’s needed before commenting on the lyrics. ‘Rapey’ some say, ‘it should be banned.’ ‘Nonsense’, others say, ‘look at it in context of its time and place: He’s courting, she’s playing coy because at the time that movie (Neptune’s Daughter) was made women were branded as fast and slutty, and lost that precious thing called reputation, if they ‘gave in’ without considerable demur. If she’d wanted to leave, she could have.’ Social approbrium on women’s behaviour then was so different from 2019’s sexual openness it’s unimaginable to some.

There seems to be a trend to shock-horror if a story—written, for example, in the late nineteenth century or mid-2000s—shows attitudes other than ones currently accepted, with little understanding that the book is reflecting the social mores of the time it was written—it is, in fact, showing what life was like then.  If a character uses language that now is called sexist or racist, or is intolerant of the LGBTI community, there is immediate outrage as if history itself should rearrange itself to conform to reflect current social expectations.

My question at the beginning of this page was brought about by an article (posted on a writers’ group page I belong to) from the New York Times, written by Brian Morton. Morton was talking to a student he met:

“The House of Mirth,” which was published in 1905, describes the efforts of a young woman named Lily Bart to find an acceptable husband. The student explained that he had been sailing along until he came to a description of one of Lily’s suitors, Simon Rosedale: ‘a plump rosy man of the blond Jewish type, with … small sidelong eyes which gave him the air of appraising people as if they were bric-a-brac.’ At that point, the student said, he lost sympathy not only for Lily, but for the novel as a whole…[Edith] Wharton’s anti-Semitism, the student said, filled him with rage. ‘I don’t want anyone like that in my house,’ he said.”

Morton goes on the discuss books written in previous eras as time machines that take the reader to another time and place so they can experience and understand the society of that time.

So, back to my question in the first paragraph above—do you, like that student, invite another time and place into your home and censor who gets through the door, or do you enter the time machine, leave your expectations and your outrage behind, and live in another world for a while?

Personally, I prefer time travel.



Author: Glen Guest

writer, editor. All about words.

One thought on “Book as time machine”

  1. I’ll travel through time, any time!
    Another phrase I grew to appreciate when studying film was to enter a state where one is willing suspend disbelief. I find it applies to all I read, as without hanging my prejudices outside the story I cannot be fully engaged or immersed.
    Of course, needless to say, there are some books I cannot and do not wish to engage with.


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