I’m reading something which is a relative rarity for me: a nonfiction work published more than 30 years ago. James Mohr’s Abortion in America:The Origins and Evolution of National Policy was first published in 1978. It was then brought out in paper back a year later and has seen no revisions since then. Recently, it was reissued — but not revised — as an electronic book, the format in which I’m reading it.
In sum, Mohr’s book is relatively old but not so old as to be considered a classic. It is no Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Nor is it an iconic text in the mold of Capote’s In Cold Blood. Neither is it a canonical text in a specialized field like Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Nor does it have special significance because of who its author was, e.g. Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. Mohr’s book has no Wikipedia article devoted to it. It is just old.
But it is an excellent book. Just old, but also excellent and unique. Mohr covers abortion legislation in the United States during the years 1800-1900, hardly a period one thinks of when considering the controversial legal standing of abortions in America today. Mohr’s thesis, “the Supreme Court decisions of the 1970s were not a modern weakening of moral standards but a return to what Americans believed and practiced a hundred years ago”, is “an eye-opener to those who think that religious objections were at the root of anti-abortion legislation and equally to those who think that abortion has been a matter of life and death”. It was certainly a fresh argument for me, and one that I don’t think has been covered in much more updated details than since Mohr published.
This brings me to the reason I usually avoid older nonfiction works; I’m afraid that they’re out-of-date. I don’t want to spend the time with a book that been superseded by new scholarship based on better/more evidence. I don’t want to get my information from a book that may have been criticized and discredited since it was written. I want to expend my limited reading time on stuff that reflects the “to the best of our knowledge” sentiment on the subject. So as prone to error as this rule of thumb is, I generally don’t read nonfiction accounts published earlier than 1990 or so.
Exceptions are of course made, especially for books in the categories mentioned above: the iconic, the genre-breaking, the authoritative account . . . But then I still would’ve missed Mohr’s excellent book. I’m glad I didn’t this time. I’m glad that Oxford University Press issued Mohr’s book as an e-book. (Did it also keep the paper version in print?) I’m glad Amazon put it on sale ($2.99). I’m glad for the serendipity that placed the book in my hands. The rule of thumb remains in place, but pleasant surprises breakers of rules sometimes make.