Sunday 25 February 2018

The Fifty Year Rule

On the Essex walk, one of our number declared that he was now following a Fifty Year Rule in his novel reading – i.e. nothing more recent than the 1960s. He has recently reread two 'angry young man' novels – John Braine's Room at the Top and John Wain's Hurrry On Down – and found that they have worn well, whereas Hemingway (whom he had, like many in their youth, once rated very highly) he now found all but unreadable. Well, at our time of life, the fifty year rule is liable to send us back to the reading of our teenage years, and that often delivers a salutary shock of disappointment.
 My friend's self-imposed time limit is a more rigorous version of the undoubtedly useful Twenty Year Rule – wait at least twenty years to see if a successful novel was really worth reading (of course it can apply beyond the world of books too, most usefully in art). I realise that I semi-consciously follow that rule myself, rarely reading new or even recent fiction, and much of the time reading from beyond even the fifty-year limit, e.g. Willa Cather, Ivy Compton-Burnett. Maybe I'm missing some good stuff by largely ignoring novels published in the past couple of decades – any suggestions? – and it's equally true that much good stuff from farther back has gone out of print, so could be said not to have stood the test of time. But by and large the twenty-plus year rule holds good. Although really the first rule of Book Club is that there are no rules.

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