Classic vs Contemporary Reading

Tim Parks ponders why we bother to read new books:

Isn’t there the same newness, or at least strangeness, when we tackle an older or foreign novel written in a tradition we’re not familiar with? The Tale of Genji, for example, or The Sorrows of Young Werther, or even Nievo’s Confessions of an Italian? There is, but with two important differences. A work like The Tale of Genji has already convinced millions of readers over centuries; I can go out on a limb and declare against it, but if I do so I’ll also have to ask myself why so many other people have enjoyed it over so many generations. More pertinently, the fact that I know nothing of eleventh-century Japan rather hampers me when I come to wondering whether this story is an appropriate response to the world the author lived in. When The Tale of Genji is strange to me it is likely because that world is strange to me, but not urgently so, since I don’t have to live in it myself.

Even when I read Nievo, despite having lived in Italy for thirty years and having read a few other Italian novels of the nineteenth century (not that many are in print), I really don’t know, intensely, what it was like being alive in Venice and Bologna and Milan in the early nineteenth century. I won’t react with the same engagement to [Ippolito] Nievo’s take on the 1848 revolutions as I will to, say, Martin Amis’s account of life in 1980s London in London Fields. I could make all kinds of objections to Amis’s book, for the simple reason that I was there. And I can get very excited when he hits the nail on the head (as I see it). This won’t happen reading Fielding’s Tom Jones, where half the pleasure is: Wow, how different the world once was.