On the ‘Reading of Old Books’

by Oak Hill Studio

It is a sunny, rather cold Saturday, and I am sitting here nibbling on a Hershey’s Cookies’n’Cream candy bar.  I say “nibbling” because it makes me feel less guilty about this partaking of extreme doses of sugar.  I love the taste as it sits briefly on my tongue, but soon enough the sugar rush sets in a prompts me to put it away until the next “nibbling”.

I’m not sure what it is about January, but it seems to be the time of year that I like to nibble—not only on sweets (probably a remnant from undisciplined consuming of Christmastime goodies), but also on mental food, which thankfully, has been of the more nutritious variety lately.

I finished listening to Chesterton’s All Things Considered and have moved on to his Heretics, which I am also really enjoying.  I hope to put up a few posts on various points he makes (in his creative, witty way) that really strike me, but today I want to quickly jot down a neat, and I think, quite practical and wise insight of C.S. Lewis on the reading of old books.  I have been slowing reading my way through C.S. Lewis’ God in the Dock, and like what he had to say in his essay entitled, “On the Reading of Old Books.”

It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself  another new one until you have read an old one in between.  If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.  Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes of our own period.  And that means the old books.

We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century–the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’–lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H.G. Wells and Karl Barth.

None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it , if we read only modern books.  Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already.  Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill.  The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds , and this can be done only by the reading of  old books.

I’ll have to give some thought on how to incorporate old books into my reading.  I know there are many good and important books, but knowing which to prioritize is rather difficult.  Perhaps I’ll begin with Lewis’ list.  In the essay, Lewis hones in on the importance of reading specifically Christian writing, though I think he intended it to apply to reading across the spectrum of topics.  A few of the authors that he includes are: George Herbert, Thomas Traherne, Jeremy Taylor (Holy Living and Holy Dying), John Bunyan (Pilgrim’s Progress), Boethius–470 A.D. (The Consolation of Philosophy), Francois de Sales (Introduction to the Devout Life and Treatise on the Love of God), Edmund Spenser (The Faerie Queen), Izaak Walton (Compleat Angler), Blaise Pascal (Pensees), William Law (Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life *note: in my book’s footnotes it says that this particular work “much influenced Lewis”), Sir Philip Sidney (Arcadia), Lady Julian of Norwich (The Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love)…..to name a few!

Well, I do think Clive was on to something here, and with all the books being put out on a yearly basis, it is a message that cannot be overstated.