A while back, Gwern wrote an interesting essay arguing against the reading of new fiction. Since there are innumerably more books than any person could reasonably consume, there’s no reason to read fiction that hasn’t been filtered for quality by time. Reading just the Hugo and Nebula award winners in science fiction could take years; why waste time on other books that are probably significantly less good?
However, I think his argument fails to take account of two benefits of reading new fiction.
First, fandom. The experience of being in Harry Potter fandom around the Goblet of Fire/Order of the Phoenix era is indescribable, and permanently addicted me to fandom as a form of consumption. The rampant speculation about every aspect of the book! Ron/Hermione versus Harry/Hermione! The reams and reams of Year Five fic! The frantic attempts to finish your Year Five fic before Order of the Phoenix came out and turned it AU! Knight to fucking King! God, remember when Mugglenet put out a book before Deathly Hallows came out about their predictions of what would happen in Deathly Hallows? They gave Dobby 100:1 odds of surviving and to this day I wonder if Dobby’s death was solely to spite Mugglenet.
Now, obviously, most fandoms are not quite as… uh, big… as Harry Potter fandom. But it remains true that– with a few exceptions, such as Good Omens and Lord of the Rings– fandoms mostly happen to book series that are coming out right now. If you are reading the 1966 Hugo winner for best novel, it is very unlikely you will get to meet a whole bunch of other people willing to talk to you about how great it is. And you don’t get to play the intellectual game of speculating what is going to happen with a book series that has already been published; either the question has already been resolved, in which case few people are interested in arguing with you about it, or the question will never be resolved, in which case you do not get the glory or shame of having totally called it or completely missed it.
Second, his argument neglects the fact that things change. Consider language. For me at least, most books published before about 1900 are not useful junk-food/leisure reading, because of the amount of effort I have to put into understanding the prose; Elizabethan-era works may be utterly incomprehensible without footnotes. (Interestingly, this suggests that junk-food books have a much faster turnover than classic works of Literachur, as you have to put effort into understanding Literachur anyway, and that ‘read old books, avoid new ones’ is a much better strategy for the latter.)
Similarly, technology changes. If I am reading a book set in the present day, it will be extremely weird to me if none of the characters have cell phones– and even weirder if they’re talking about how they can’t get on the computer when their mom is using the phone. Again, this doesn’t apply to all fiction: historical fiction, science fiction, and other-world fantasy fiction survive unscathed, as does any present-day fiction that can seamlessly transition into being a period piece. But nevertheless I feel like I would sacrifice some quality in order to get to occasionally read books in which people use Facebook.
More importantly, values change. Of course, values dissonance can be valuable– it gives you insight into what people believed in other times, and makes visible the historical contingency of your own values. But again that isn’t necessarily what people want out of their leisure reading: sometimes I don’t want to be improved, I just want to see things go boom and clever people be clever. I do not want my things going boom to be interrupted by comments about how the place of women is in the home or villains being stereotypically greedy Jews or conniving Asians. That is likely to annoy me, throw me out of the book, and generally make my reading experience less pleasant.
Furthermore, I would like many of the clever people I read about to be women, LGBT people, or ideally lesbians. Only in modern books can I both read about lesbians and not have to put up with tedious long lectures about how Accepting Lesbians Is Morally Right and Love Is Love and Lesbians Are Just Like Us. (I mean, have you read the Last Herald Mage series? Historically important, I know, but Jesus Christ yes I get it gay people aren’t pedophiles move on with the plot.) And God forbid if I want a trans character: we’re still not in the stage where trans characters can just be people. Similarly, while of course many older books have excellent roles for female characters, if I pick up a random book in the twenty-first century it’s much more likely to pass the Bechdel Test. As a person who was female for nearly half my life, it is a bit annoying to only read books that are sausage fests.