“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” (C.S. Lewis, On the Reading of Old Books)I found that quote in a magazine, but was curious to see it in context. Online, I found that it came from the introduction to a translation of St. Athanasius’ “The Incarnation of the Word of God.” I found the entire introduction here and here.Lewis starts by saying:
There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books … [I]f the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium … The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him.
He wrote that one of the areas where this mentality was rampant was in theology. Instead of reading the Gospel of Luke or the letters of Paul, or flipping open St. Ignatius or St. Augustine, readers will turn to someone like, well, C.S. Lewis himself or a contemporary of his like Dorothy Sayers. He pointed out that as an author he of course hopes that readers will some modern books; but if they had to choose between one of the other, he would advise that person to choose the old.
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books … The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.
Do you agree?And do you read that way—new book followed by an old book?
I am just on my way to bed and thought I’d read this real quick. It’ll be a nice thing to think about as I crawl into bed. Thank you. What a wonderful find.
I absolutely love older literature, bibles and dictionaries! I have the 1939 version of My Utmost for His Highest ~ Oswald Chambers and absolutely love the fullness of the message and inspiration.
I believe that, somehow, with technology and whatever other “improvements” of ease our society has become accustomed to has diminished the american english language. Obviously a frustration of mine. 🙂
Currently I am reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, a harder read for even me, who is (was) an avid reader! I find the language and the writing style eloquent and colorful. I think much of modern literature loses something sometimes.
So, yes, I definately attempt to read the older literature, often.
As I continue to read (slowly) Mere Christianity, I read The Shack by William P. Young, in between chapters.
The Shack was wonderfully vibrant and well written. I encourage others to read this gentleman’s novel about one man’s encounter with God. Always remembering it is a fictional novel.
I think in reading the “old” books, we always learn something new. I think it grounds us to know where the modern writers drew their inspiration and it makes more sense to call on the wise words of old. Lewis is my all time favorite, yet I’ve never read the Wardrobe trilogy. Mostly just his “lesser known” books on theology and Christianity. What are some books you’d recommend that are considered “old”?
I’m certainly guilty of shopping the “new books” shelf of my library. Thanks for offering such a practical suggestion. I’m sure my reading will be enriched because of that!
Kristin: Did you have any new thoughts while you were drifting to sleep?
hopeannfaith: Thanks for your thoughts on reading! I like what you said about the eloquence of the writers of “old books.” It’s kind of funny to read this opinion of Lewis whose work is, by now, falling into the category of “old books.” At least “older.” I liked that excerpt I included where he wondered why we don’t just go back and read the Bible itself instead of just reading books *about* the Bible. But I do think that some “new” books can also help us understand things that we might not “get” on our own. That may be why people are intimidated by old books–difficult vocabulary alone may make it hard for some people to dig in. Modern literature uses much simpler expressions.
greenchickadee: I love how you said that reading the old can teach us something new! Clever!
Meredith: Sometimes I get in a rut one way or the other–new or old. I kind of liked Lewis’ suggestion of mixing it up. I also like to remember to mix up genres, within the category of new and old.
Reading old books is one of my greatest delights!
I probably read 10 old books for every new one 🙂
totally off topic – but I had to come by and say I bought Nutella at Target yesterday, in your honor. DH had never tasted it before, and I had once, but it was years ago. We both are fans 🙂
and I’m terrible about reading old books!
Katrina @ Callapidder Days says
Oh, interesting things here to ponder. I admit that I often choose newer books, but I do find it delightful to dive into an old book here and there. It’s fascinating to explore the differences in language, in outlook, in culture, in values.
And when it comes to the Bible — that’s, by far, the best old book to read. Far too often, we (and by “we,” I guess I mean modern-day Christians in general) prefer to read what our contemporaries say *about* Scripture, and don’t spend enough time meditating on what Scripture itself has to say.
Aja Abney says
Great advice! I love to read old books–they are very stretching for me, in terms of style and content. In our fast-food society, where everything comes in neat and easy to digest packages, I love it that with an old book, you are forced to be “in the moment” to really understand and comprehend. With that said, I’ve also really enjoyed a lot of modern books as well. You can learn something from everyone.
BTW, I love the photo at the top of this post. It makes me want to go hang out at our university library and smell old books. 🙂
I do agree…his “salty breeze” description seems quite apt…
yet, I appreciate contemporary writers for what they are…a product of their times…
and in any age you will have classics because of their universal truths and meat and substance….
I find myself at a loss trying to understand some of the “language” from past ages, because of dialects, cultures and peoples that I am not familiar with…but it seems if you push through, you at least get the flavor of what the intent was…and you can always look up people or places they refer to and learn something new….
It would be great to make a list of people’s favorite “old” books.
A few of my favorites authors are anything by Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, George McDonald, George Orwell, Emily Dickensen, GK Chesteron. My husband loves loves Dickens. And of course everything CS Lewis. Read the Space Trilogy, and my other favorite is The Great Divorce. What do others love?
Like generations before them, Generation Y has often been discussed and studied. ,
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Sina Oroz says
Great post. Have been trying to learn a new language on the net but not having a lot of success, have been considering going to a local programme so this is useful, thank you.