Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Out Of Date?

Old BooksWhen does a book become out-of-date?

I recently followed an amusing exchange of views on the Roman Army Talk forum. A lurker can often turn up gems of information there, in amongst the usual silly questions and horseplay that make up the bulk of any online forum. There are some familiar names -- the novelist Ben Kane and the ancient world blogger Jona Lendering pop in and out -- but RAT has not yet attracted the big guns.

The thread that I was following began innocuously enough -- as many forum threads do -- but in the course of page 3, a new debate emerged, such is the beauty of our dynamic medium. From a rather dull discussion of mules in the Roman army, I was suddenly plunged into a debate about an out-of-date book. Or -- as one of the writers belatedly concedes -- an "allegedly" out-of-date book!

How outdated is out-of-date?

This got me thinking. When does a book become outdated? As an old Roman emperor, I have enjoyed many classic books over the years. My shelves still proudly display Henry Parker's Roman Legions, a book written in the 1920s, and Leonard Cheesman's Auxilia of the Roman Imperial Army, an even older book. They still have their value, perhaps because they did not claim to be comprehensive. And they still read like classics.

The main protagonist on the RAT thread (easily identifiable by his lengthy posts, liberally spattered with flashing icons that proclaim "I laugh in your face!") was feverishly championing a book from 1983. Quite recent, in the grand scheme of things. (I wasn't even 1900 years old then.) The book, Roman Forts of the first and second centuries AD in Britain and the German Provinces, although long out of print, can still be acquired from second-hand dealers. But, as other postings on the thread pointed out, much has changed since 1983. What began life as a comprehensive guidebook can no longer be considered as such. Other guidebooks have been fortunate in achieving updated second and third editions. Because, as one posting pointed out: "archaeology marches on".

I think a book is out-of-date only when it is superseded, when a new batch of information makes the old batch no longer representative of the subject. It's probably time for a new Roman Forts book.