01/29/2013 06:13 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

Jane Austen and Zombies: Old Novels, New Insights

For those of us who teach and write about 18th- and 19th-century literature, the unexpected success of Seth Grahame-Smith's 2009 novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, has been bittersweet. On the one hand, I want to cheer that Jane Austen's "classic Regency romance," as Grahame-Smith's title page cheerily describes it, continues to resonate with readers; her blend of old-fashioned manners and modern social observations clearly still strikes a chord in our age of Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. On the other hand, it hurts that many readers, perhaps encountering Elizabeth and Darcy for the first time in Grahame-Smith's souped-up versions, will be disappointed when almost any subsequent forays they make into "old books" fail to turn up enough (or any) references to martial arts and flesh-eating undead to sustain their interest. (Fortunately, Bram Stoker's 1895 potboiler, Dracula, can always be counted on to provide at least some of these thrills. And if readers come to Stoker through Stephanie Meyers' Twilight series, as they increasingly do, they may be pleasantly surprised at how much more independent Mina Harker frequently is than Bella Swan.)

So as bookshelves (and e-readers) continue to groan with knock-offs of Grahame-Smith's knock-off -- which, by the way, is on its way to a multiplex near you -- it seems worth asking: are zombies and ninjas the only way to make the novels of previous centuries relevant again?

To be clear, I don't mean to suggest that only "old" literature is worth reading; on the contrary, there is plenty of excellent new fiction and poetry published in English every year. Among the good reasons to revisit older literature, however, is the fact that one's appreciation of many contemporary novels and poems will almost certainly be deepened by some knowledge of the literary predecessors and influences that they draw on, allude to, or simply echo without necessarily knowing it. When I recently taught Amy Waldman's 2011 novel The Submission in a course on the literary and cultural legacies of 9/11 in America, for example, I wished more students were familiar with the novels of Charles Dickens or Walter Scott; I would have liked to discuss how Waldman's book recalls and updates the trailblazing of those authors' muckraking novels and historical fictions without quickly inducing blank stares.

The literature of the past not only continues to inform that of the present, however -- it also continues to speak to our own interests and concerns, although in ways that sometimes take a bit more literary digging to uncover. Yes, one can go back to Scott's historical novels -- the most widely-read fictions of the 19th century -- in order to see how books like Ivanhoe and Rob Roy portray "old-fashioned" values like propriety and chivalry in ways distinctly similar to Austen's more enduringly popular novels.

But it is also interesting to note how Scott, writing in the 1810s and almost always focused on earlier eras, is himself aware that these qualities are already on the decline. What's more, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Whether set in the Scottish Highlands or the deserts of Palestine, many of Scott's novels show how the overturning of traditional values -- whether through war or more gradual social and political change -- opens the door for more modern values like competition and individualism. And since Scott inevitably notes what is lost as well as gained on the road to modernity, these new values in turn are frequently held up for questioning. The limits of individualism, for example, become all too clear at the end of Ivanhoe, when the eponymous Saxon hero chooses - or, really, is forced - to give up his passionate attachment to the "beautiful Jewess," Rebecca, in order to reclaim his place in King Richard's newly unified land. How many of us still chafe under the restrictions of such "forced choices?"

Old books, then, do not just help us appreciate new ones. Written in eras without our contemporary profusion of alternative media entertainments, older novels unavoidably move at slower paces than their contemporary cousins. Readers opening a volume of Austen, Scott, Dickens, George Eliot, Henry James, or even Mark Twain need to be prepared to slow down, take their time, and learn to enjoy the unfolding of plot and development of character at a more leisurely pace. But with a little practice and patience, the shock of difference -- wow, times have really changed -- can be joined by the recognition of similarity -- it turns out that many of their concerns and joys are still with us today. Learning to recognize and appreciate this balance of difference and sameness, foreign and familiar, is perhaps the most valuable lesson the novels of the past can give today's readers. No zombies required.