Let’s consider expiration dates on old writings

Much of the food we buy in grocery stores is stamped with a date to indicate how fresh the food is. When our food gets too old, we throw it out, and we don’t feel guilty about doing so. “I can’t eat that — it’s expired.” So we go back to the store and try something new.

Clearly, food is not writing. Really old food is hard to find, and hardly edible, but really old texts abound. The world’s oldest known work of literature, the epic of Gilgamesh, was written on clay tablets and has since been copied and translated so it’s available to us to read now, over 3,000 years after it was written. And long before stories were written down, they were transmitted orally (for example, these stories from India).

In other words, writings never rot. But maybe they grow stale.

What does stale mean in terms of texts? Again, like food, maybe stale writing is just not tasty, not appealing. Corn chips that are soggy, and yogurt that is crisp, are not foods we’d expect others to eat. But as a culture, we keep publishing the really old texts, and teaching them as if they still have nutritive value for our students.

And I’m not really going to claim here that we should throw out all of the old texts. But I want to suggest that maybe we don’t need to revere the old texts just because they’re old. The reason that the stories in these old texts have survived is because, unlike an egg or a loaf of bread, these stories are ideas, and as such never live and never die. We take in freshly made things to nourish our bodies, and yet some of the ideas we still use to categorize, distinguish, and model our experiences and our world are thousands of years old.

For example, The Epic of Gilgamesh contains (in this translation of Tablet VII) a narrative that includes a character praying to a deity, a character describing a dream of an afterlife, and a character grieving over another character’s death. Many of our stories still have these things, and many contemporary people still do these things. Perhaps these things have lasted so long because they are a part of what could be called human nature. On the other hand, perhaps these are simply old ideas that have yet to be replaced by better ways of understanding reality and human experience.

So I don’t wish to throw these old texts onto the compost pile with the wilted lettuce — I don’t want to say these ideas are actually past their expiration dates. But maybe we could ask whether some of these ideas are past their “Best By” dates, and maybe we should try new ways of looking at and conceiving of the world.

4 responses to “Let’s consider expiration dates on old writings

  1. “But I want to suggest that maybe we don’t need to revere the old texts just because they’re old.”

    Agreed. The trick is to find the classics that are really timeless. In your ideal classroom setting, what standard texts would you remove from the curriculum?

    • You pose a really challenging question. I guess I would say this: any list of texts recommended for students will have some odd choices on it. For example, the texts recommended by the Common Core standards at http://www.corestandards.org/assets/Appendix_B.pdf include, for 6th-to-8th grade students, Winston Churchill’s “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: Address to Parliament on May 13th, 1940,” and for 9th-10th graders, Voltaire’s “Candide” or Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” These may be fine choices for readers in general, but I doubt that pushing children to read what decades-older curricular experts think is important is going to be very meaningful for particular students.
      I think what I would recommend is that educators abandon the idea of timeless classics. Rather than choosing the books for students to read, I would recommend that students themselves choose books that are interesting to them. I would prioritize engaging the students over covering the texts. With my creative writing students, I ask them to find poems that they like (from a significant library of poetry books). This approach seems to motivate students by giving them choice, and their choices tell the students something about themselves, and what kinds of poems they might want to write. (This might be more difficult, but not impossible, in a class focused on literature.) In my experience, I wasn’t able to connect with the classics I was assigned as a student, and I read the nearly contemporary Vonnegut and Kerouac on my own, and these were the background from which I came to appreciate the classics as an adult. I don’t think it matters where a student enters the “literary conversation,” so much it matters that they do.

      • “I think what I would recommend is that educators abandon the idea of timeless classics. Rather than choosing the books for students to read, I would recommend that students themselves choose books that are interesting to them.”

        That’s reasonable. My high school English teachers (decades ago) gave us a limited set of choices. That’s how I managed to escape Moby Dick, which has never interested me.

      • Good for your teachers, and I can certainly respect your opinion regarding Moby Dick. I may give it a try one day, but like you, I could probably live a full and happy life without it!

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