07 February 2011


Life as a Reading Challenge, Chapter 4

It is said that you can always tell which decade--maybe even which year--a Historical movie was filmed, thanks to tell-tale anachronisms even the best crews end up leaving behind. It's even more obvious with future-set films (Yeah, I'm still in that groove), which, no matter how hard they try, inevitably and ironically can never help looking dated. But it's not the details which matter so much as their ethos, which is what let things really fit into the time they were made; and here I don't just mean movies, but also books.

And that's why I was really excited, a few weeks ago, when I decided "to match" the books for my Victorian Literature Challenge with the books for my YA of the 80s and 90s Challenge. It would give me a chance to see the same themes, the same character types, the same settings and/or the same plots from writers in very different ages.

Easier dreamed than done, of course; and when I couldn't think of any "retro" YA Adventure Lit to go with H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, I had to post a request for recommendations on a widely used message board.

But who could have guessed that one reader's idea of a good match would be the Hardy Boys books? =S

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not infallible
where any decade's pop culture is concerned,
but these don't scream "80s" to me at all.

Naturally, I thanked the fellow who suggested them, for taking the time to respond, before pointing out that he missed my target time period by a few decades.

He then replied that it didn't matter, because the Hardy Boys novels are revised for every generation and are therefore never dated.

And of course, that's even worse. As I argued, books originally written in the 1920s but revised for the 1980s are still not properly from the 1980s. And well, given my request, I was asking for books that are dated, not books that are never dated.

The next time I went back to the thread, I saw he hadn't replied again and had instead deleted all his previous posts. Sigh!

But never mind him: we have an issue here. Thanks to that short, anonymous exchange, I realised that it is important to let books age . . . even if they reveal themselves unable to do it gracefully and to become classics.

Yes, these two are more like it--
but reading challenges are not about the covers.

There is something about this "rewriting" of old books that robs both the past and the present of their dignity--as if all people who have ever lived are pretty much the same behind the "incidentals" of breeding, culture, language and mores. The rich irony is that this practice (and its acceptance) is driven by the political correctness that marks our own age more strongly than any others: we want to believe that everyone in the world today is equal and therefore capable of getting along with everybody else. How this works out is that we end up thinking the same of everyone who has ever lived. Even fictional characters.

Now, if this seems like a lot of indignation to feel over the intentionally two-dimensional Frank and Joe Hardy, then please know I'm also thinking about Huck Finn--and the publishers and readers who recently decided that he may no longer say the word "nigger" what we cautiously refer to as "the n-word."

(I wonder how many people remember that Allan Quatermain says it, too. Deep in the heart of Africa, no less!!!)

Other examples abound, not just in juvenile series publishing, but also in the canon of classic movies. I mean, you remember what Steven Spielberg ended up doing to all the guns in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, don't you? There must be other cases in music--and maybe even in art--but I haven't found them yet. Give me time?

What I do know for certain right now is that reading should mean so much more than hanging out with like-minded people in familiar-looking places. And if we can't deal with characters who are a little different and settings that are a little strange, after dozens of generations managed to handle them without a murmur, then perhaps the problem lies not in the books, but in ourselves.

Image Sources: a) The Tower Treasure 1920s, b) The Tower Treasure 1960s, c) The Tower Treasure 1980s A, d) The Tower Treasure 1980s B


Salome Ellen said...

Well, at least the Hardy Boys have no protesting author spinning in his grave. I actually think Stratemeyer would approve of the updating.

Dauvit Balfour said...

I have a sudden urge to go lurk in old bookstores looking for original version of the books, or at least the first ten. It never occurred to me as a child that there was a discrepancy between when the books were first written and some of the things in the books (like the cars they drove).

I think I should feel cheated of part of my childhood, but somehow I don't.

Regarding music: it happens there, too. Ry Cooder intentionally recorded the original version of the song "Shine" which talks about the early years of a smiling, pearly-toothed, curly-headed black child. According to the liner notes, that first verse is never played anymore. It happens on a smaller scale with every white southern or English artist that covers classic blues songs - vocabulary gets ever so slightly updated and sanitized. I can't think of any glaring examples off the top of my head, though I imagine that Cooder's cover of Bourgeois Blues, with it's use of the "n-word", would not be made by any other modern bluesman.

Enbrethiliel said...


Ellen: I think the first few books had a single ghostwriter who might have shrugged a little, if not spun crazily. =P Stratemeyer himself, I agree, would be 100% behind this practice.

Dauvit: When it comes to these books, I don't think anyone could really feel cheated . . . except perhaps those who loved the originals very much--and I don't think I've ever heard a peep from them! (There's a thesis about Stratemeyer's books waiting to be written.) On the other hand, you'll run into Web savvy BSC and SVH fans who look with scorn on the modernised versions of their old favourites.

I inherited my mother's Nancy Drew collection, so I started with the "second generation" of that series. Then I borrowed a friend's Nancy Drew Casefiles books, which are not (as far as I know) primarily rewrites, but new books written for the 80s and 90s, and a different case from what I'm writing about here. But yes, they still have to follow the Nancy Drew canon as much as possible, so that no one who reads an older book gets too confused. (LOL!)

As for music, I do think a lot of once-acceptable songs have been quietly dropped through the years, although I wouldn't consider it the same thing. (I wonder whether there are some readers who are a trifle embarrassed that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn hasn't slid into obscurity in a similar way.) The sanitised covers you mention are more to the point.

And now I don't know whether this is something I'm on tenterhooks to see (because there's always something exciting about the impending apocalypse) or something I never want to see (because, you know, I'm still sane): a record company deciding that a track from an old album is no longer appropriate in its original form, having it digitally altered, and releasing it only in that form in the future. That would be another herald of the end, don't you think?

Dauvit Balfour said...

I read some of the Hardy Boys casefiles as well. I was mad that they killed Iola, in the very first one, no less. Am I missing something obvious, or do BSC and SVH simply fall outside of my experience?

From the same era (and I think they used Franklin W. Dixon as the author's name on these as well), came the Bomba the Jungle Boy books. Those haven't gone through as many reprintings and aren't as widely popular, so if you find 'em, there's a good chance they're originals (though now they've taken on collector's item status, so they're no longer easy to pick up for $10).

I know the song "At the Harbor" by Renaissance (early 70's) was edited when the album was released on CD in '88 because it quoted from a piece by Debussy that was no longer public domain. I wouldn't be surprised if something similar happened to, say, BEP's "Get Retarded in Here". (How many people even know that's the original name of the song?)

Enbrethiliel said...


They killed Iola?!?!?!?!

*picks self up off floor*

Oh, man. I was just snickering over her eternally G-rated relationship with Joe last night. =S Now I feel guilty . . .

Then again, it's possible Iola faked her death and decided to run off with a nice guy who didn't turn every romantic getaway into an excuse to solve another mystery.

I remember wondering about hearing, "Let's get it started in here," since it seemed to me that the "singers" (I use the word loosely) had once used the lyric "retarded." Did I just have bad hearing? (Ha!) Well, now I know. =P