|Now that's old school.|
I was glancing at my bookshelves recently, as I’m wont to do
when I’m in between books and scanning for the next title … or if
it’s just Tuesday. And it struck me that my reading tastes are rooted firmly in
My top shelf has got the collected works of Rudyard Kipling,
Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche, and several books
by E.R. Eddison and Poul Anderson. The next shelf down are the Lancer Conan
Saga, Karl Edward’s Kane, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Not exactly George R.R.
Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, or John Scalzi. Any of which I could be into, but am
really not, even if some day I do plan to finish A Song of Ice and Fire,
if Martin ever gets around to it.
I do take comfort in the fact that I’m not alone. An
adherent of Anglo-Saxon literature and Icelandic Saga, J.R.R. Tolkien was of the
mind that anything after the Canterbury Tales was (mostly) not worth his time.
I’m glad I’m not that extreme, or else I never would have discovered The
Lord of the Rings or “Beyond the Black River.” But, in another sense I’m quite
like Tolkien, my eyes cast ever backwards at the literature of a lost age. We’ll
never have another golden age of sword-and-sorcery, when drugstores carried Conan
the Buccaneer on their wire spinners and Thundarr the Barbarian thundered
through living rooms on Saturday mornings. But that doesn’t mean I’ve moved on
from those glory days. Today my drugstore is Abe Books and Ebay, where I hunt
down old copies of Pursuit on Ganymede and Raven 5: A Time of Dying. And
I know there are many others like me, based on what I’ve seen in the Facebook
groups I belong to.
My tastes in reading are analogous to my tastes in music,
which is likewise the music of my youth. My favorite bands are Iron Maiden, Judas
Priest, Black Sabbath, KISS, Rush, and AC/DC. Some of these guys are still
writing new material—some of it damned good—but mostly they are associated with
their heyday in the 70s and 80s. If you’re a fan, you’re ancient history, pal.
I would not say I’m a hopeless case, irrevocably trapped in
the past. I can and do enjoy some new stuff. Battle Beast, a young Finnish metal band for example, caught my attention, and now have muscled their way into my
playlist alongside the likes of Blind Guardian and Pantera. I like Joe Abercrombie,
including the likes of The Heroes (2011). At this very moment I’m
reading and enjoying Brian Keene’s The Lost Level (2015), which just came
out in the last decade.
But on some level even these “new” finds are anachronistic, often
deliberately so, which continues to prove my point that I like old shit. For example,
The Lost Level is a clear homage to the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs’
Pellucidar series. Battle Beast is an unabashed throwback to the 80s. It should
come as no surprise that the band draws
inspiration for its sound and lyrics from that era. Even in the new stuff I
consume, I’m drawn inevitably to older forms of expression.
I do wonder: Do we develop our tastes during a formative time
in our lives and become part of us forever? Does some biochemical process shape
our malleable brains between the ages of 8-18, and permanently alter our mental
wiring? Musician and musicologist Nolan Gasser offers
some answers along those lines, arguing that the music you listened to as a
youth placed you within a culture that formed part of your identity:
“I actually use the term
‘intraculture’ to describe cultures that take place within a culture,” he
explains, likening them to subgenres of music. “A lot of it has to do with
where you grew up and what kind of musical influences are in the air, but we
participate in so many subcultures of affinity, just based on what we like.
Intracultures provide us with access to music just because you’re a part of a
group, and that group means something to you.”
“Music becomes that stake in the
ground — ‘this is who I am,’” says Gasser. “But at the same time, the music
people listened to at an early age becomes their native home comfort music.
When they grow up, that music will be part of who they are, tied in with
memories and growing up. All of these powers are why music is so important to
There is no doubt that heavy metal had its own culture and
ethos, one that I participated in, and on some level still do. I may be
indistinguishable from your average everyday middle-aged middle class dude, but
I have a metal spirit in me, an anti-authoritarian streak and a pride in having
tastes that are harsher than the mainstream, even anathema in some quarters. I’m
sure that’s part of the reason why I maintain such an enduring loyalty for
Interesting is my lack of nostalgia in other areas—I enjoy
the latest psychology and self-help books, for example. I delight in the latest
and greatest beer from new breweries (Heady Topper is way better than Pabst
Blue Ribbon). I’ve come to enjoy podcasts as a new medium for consuming information
and entertainment, even though I still prefer the printed page over e-books.
It’s really only certain forms of art, in particular music
and fantasy literature, where my preferences clearly lie with works pre-1990.
Another possible explanation: Were the authors and musicians
of my youth simply better at their craft? Were these subgenres—heavy metal and
sword-and-sorcery—more widely practiced because they were more lucrative, or
more creatively vital, and hence attracted more and greater talent, producing
better art than we see today? Perhaps. Some authors can and did make a living writing
for Weird Tales back in the day, and of course many metal acts made a fortune
in the 80s. Artists don’t enjoy the same market realities today. The bar to
writing and publishing stories and music is easier than ever, but I don’t
believe it’s as easy to make a living at either these days.
Who knows. Be it a matter of identity and cultural imprinting,
or idiosyncratic tastes, it’s hard to say why I enjoy the old shit. All I know
that is that heavy metal and Tolkien and sword-and-sorcery were my obsessions
then, remain so today, and likely always will be.