Hardcover. Penguin Classics.
From: I bought this at Shiretown Books, an indie bookstore in Woodstock, VT
For the challenge: Read 19 Books Older than Myself
My header of “review” will not be an entirely accurate description of the following paragraphs. I’ll talk a little about Cranford but I’m also going to use it as a launching point for a broader topic of discussion.
Cranford is the first book of Elizabeth Gaskell that I have read. Its gentle humor, rural locale, and rumination on days gone by made for ideal summer reading. Gaskell’s observations of the elderly ladies of Cranford are affectionate without being too sentimental. It’s a wonderful book and I will make sure and link to others’ reviews of it at the end of my post if you want a more detailed review.
My experience of reading Cranford spurred me to think about how books are a product of their time and culture and how that affects the reader’s perception of that book. My edition of Cranford is annotated, with notes explaining customs of the time and place as well as literary and historical allusions. A quick example: in the book, a character goes off to Cheltenham, and the note connected with that sentence explains that it is a spa town. At other times Gaskell quotes poetry, plays and other writings and the notes explain who wrote it and from which work and when it was published.
At first, I was not going to read any of the ‘extra’ material provided in my edition. For my first read, I just wanted to keep to the original text and not spoil myself with the introduction, or bother yet with the appendices of a related work of Gaskell. However, the notes proved really useful in helping me to understand phrases and terms, context and connotations. Indeed, I enjoyed the knowledge I was gleaning about the times in which Cranford took place.
However, then I started wondering about my own dislike of contemporary literature that includes too many pop culture references. Recently I’ve criticized such books as You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up and All-American Girl for their frequent pop culture references. I still stand by those criticisms for those two books, but at what point and to what saturation is referencing current culture okay? Additionally, if a contemporary book was constantly quoting other (often recent) poets and writers as Cranford does, it might come off to me as insular or pretentious.
Cranford is certainly reflective of its time and culture, but it has a transcendent quality in its story and observations of human nature. I could never call it ‘dated’ as I have been known to do with other, more recent, books I’ve read. Gaskell’s style of quoting other authors comes off quite naturally and not like she’s trying to name-drop (not even with Dickens who she knew quite well.)
But will books written now, set in our present-day, and that incorporate present-day culture, literature and opinions be automatically viewed as ‘dated’ by future generations? Or maybe years and years from now, will some get their own annotated editions?
Of course, there are books like Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao, which already comes with its own footnotes for its sci-fi culture references and notes about Dominican Republic history. And that leads me to another facet of this discussion, which is of course in a given time or era, there are multitudes of cultures in the world. There is no ‘one’ culture for the 2000’s even as there was no ‘one’ culture for Cranford‘s time. One needs footnotes for Cranford not only because it was published in the 1850’s but also because it is written by an English author about a rural village in England.
So, is there a point where a book is stuck so deeply in its given culture that no one outside of it will understand it, much less enjoy it? Does time have an affect? For instance, I may find pop culture references hard to take in a book written now or in the 1990’s, but maybe I’m more forgiving – even intrigued – by the same choice displayed in a book, say, from the 1950’s.
While visiting with my parents, I’ve been watching episodes of “The Outer Limits” which aired in the 1960’s. The sci-fi show clearly bears the marks of a Cold War mentality and yes, that and its special effects may make it dated, but I kind of like how it encapsulates the era in which it was made. (I may laugh at some of the special effects though.) But its concerns and themes still resonate today, even in its 1960’s trappings.
So perhaps, like with me and “The Outer Limits,” a book from today will be viewed later as a quaint capsule of its time and culture for its capturing of its contemporary culture. However, looking back over what I’ve written above, I have alluded or mentioned several times the idea of ‘transcendancy.’ I think there is a need for a book to tap into some essential aspect of human nature and life and imagination to maintain relevance and accessibility with future audiences.
I feel that I’ve barely scratched the surface on the topic, so I look forward to your thoughts in the comments to extend the discussion!
As promised, more reviews of Cranford here:
Let me know if I’ve missed yours and I’ll add it!