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Out Of Date?

Old BooksWhen does a book become out-of-date?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 From a rather dull discussion of mules in the Roman army, I was suddenly plunged into a debate about an out-of-date book. Or -- as one of the writers belatedly concedes -- an "allegedly" out-of-date book!

How outdated is out-of-date?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 When does a book become outdated?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I think a book is out-of-date only when it is superseded, when a new batch of information makes the old batch no longer representative of the subject.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.


  1. I think that's probably the best criteria - a book is out of date when a new book with more up to date information is published.

    But I think it varies a bit according to topic as well. Some books are out of date for me because the world view of the author is no longer that of most aademics today (books on myth that talk endlessly about 'primitives', books on gender or women written some decades ago). Then there are books that are 'out of date' due to attitude or outdated information, but which make a very interesting argument that is still worth exploring, so I still tell students to read them - many of the myth books come under this heading!

  2. Re 'big guns': Conn Iggulden used to post on RAT, although to be fair I don't think he does any more. However, John Maddox Roberts (SPQR mysteries) posts regularly, and I would moot that he is a big gun.
    Excellent blog, by the way.
    From a small gun.

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  4. A fascinating subject - but even 'out-of-date- books of the type Juliette refers to can be of interest, because they tell us much about the 'mores' and attitudes at the time they were written.Thanks for pointing us readers to that 'Roman Army Talk forum', and drawing attention to 'old' versus 'new' books. It turns out that the 'new' information in the Osprey Roman forts book actually goes back a long way and isn't new at all! Dr Michael Bishop ( a name well known to those of us here in Britain interested in archaeology and history, but perhaps less well known over 'the pond')seems to have closed the debate by pointing out just how 'old' the 'new' stuff in that book really is, eh? Guess it goes to prove the old adage about there being 'nothing new under the sun'........

  5. << Excellent blog, by the way. From a small gun. >>
    Thank you, Ben. And I meant no disrespect to you and your fellow authors. It's quite an achievement to be a gun at all, big or small!

    << It turns out that the 'new' information in the Osprey Roman forts book actually goes back a long way and isn't new at all! >>
    Eheu. Some people are never satisfied. Aren't we wandering from the point slightly. I don't recall mentioning the Osprey Roman Forts book.

  6. Anne Johnson's "Roman Forts" book is excellent. It has stood the test of time well, and being substantial in its length, contains far more information than certain more recent shorter 'popular' works, like Duncan Campbell's Osprey Roman forts book.

  7. You are determined to bring up the subject of the Osprey Roman Forts book, aren't you?

    << ... contains far more information than certain more recent shorter 'popular' works ... >>

    But are you seriously comparing a 368-page book with a 64-page Osprey? I know it's good, but there's only so much information you can pack into a 64-page book!