I've been re-reading a lot lately, visiting with some old friends between the covers, and I've come to a conclusion about material that becomes dated because of changing social attitudes: Some of it matters, and some doesn't.
One of my re-reads is the Deadly Sin collection of Lawrence Sanders, four New York City murder-mystery novels featuring homicide detective Edward X. Delaney. They've been out of print for years but recently became available in electronic format, so I downloaded all of them to my Kindle.
The mystery writing itself is just as compelling as I remember it. The characters are complex, the plot moves well, the police work is detailed and believable. But the cultural landscape, a big city in America a mere 40 years ago, seems foreign to me. Sanders' descriptions of the nascent women's liberation movement seem especially dated. He tries to sound supportive of the little ladies' fight for equality and respect, but it comes off as superior and condescending. It was off-putting enough to spoil the read for me a little.
Then there's “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which I picked up because I saw the movie again on cable and enjoyed as much as I did the first time. (It's one of the few works of fiction I can think of where the book and movie versions are equally excellent.)
Now, there's some dated material. The 1960 depiction of 1930s racial attitudes in the South seems as strange as the Victorian Age must have seemed to the flappers in the 1920s. I can't imagine a kid today picking the book up and even beginning to grasp what it was like. People were really that vile to a whole race? And got away with it?
But the book still shines today as much as it ever did. Its essential humanity shouts out from every page. If human beings can still display such warmth and humor in the face of naked brutality, then there might be hope for the human race after all, we think while reading it. The book will still be read and appreciated 100 years from now. It truly is timeless, as all the classics are.
There's a lesson in that, I think, for all of us who are locked in the Red State-Blue State ultra-partisan war. It's OK to argue strongly for our ideas, even become passionate about them. But we should still respect each other's basic humanity.
The monsters are rare, and even the rogues and scoundrels are in the minority. If we're to avoid the despair of bitterness and cynicism, we have to believe the vast majority of people are decent – and treat them accordingly, despite their obviously misguided opinions.