Wednesday, January 02, 2008

I'm Reading Old Books in '08

I plan to do something different this year. Actually, I've been meaning to do this for sometime now, but just never have taken the plunge. Here's the plan: In the year 2008--with a possible exception or two--I'm going to read nothing but older books. By "older" I mean at least 50 years old. But most of my reads will go back much further than that. I'm doing this mainly because of something C.S. Lewis said.

In 1944, Lewis wrote an introduction for a then-new translation of St. Athanasius' book, The Incarnation of the Word of God. Sometime later, the piece was published as an essay under the title, "On the Reading of Old Books." You can find it in the classic collection God in the Dock.

Here's why, says Lewis, people ought to read plenty of old books. First, by reading old books (and what he especially has in mind are classics) a person doesn't have to sort through all of the secondary works on, say, Plato. A person can go straight to the great source and read the Symposium. Lewis says that most people avoid classics because they don't think they'll understand them. They believe they have to read some much later book written by a scholar on the subject. The impulse of humility is a good one. But here it's misguided. Most of the time the secondary works are much harder to understand than the primary ones. So that's what people should read.

Second, by reading old books (again, Lewis means classics) you don't have to wonder if it's a good book. We know the old books because they have stood the test of time. Some of the new books, not many, will eventually stand up. But you don't know which ones. In the case of old books, we know. (There's an argument that could be made here about church music too. But I won't go there, . . . as though I just didn't).

Third, by reading old books a person prevents himself from becoming enslaved to contemporary thought. On this point, Lewis says that, as a corrective, a person should read an old book for at least every new one. Think about it, he says, you already know the genuine and general truths of our time because you live in this time. So if you read only recent books, you will only hear again what you already knew. But, you will also be indoctrinated in the errors of our age. On the other hand, when a person reads old books, he easily and immediately detects the mistakes of that previous age. But he also hears truths that are hardly known in his own age. So, Lewis says that reading old books is, to use the phrase, a win-win.

Fourth, by reading old books--specifically, old books written by Christians--a person becomes acquainted with what Lewis called "mere Christianity." Lewis observed that there is general, basic, irreducible faith to which all Christians hold no matter what the time and place. He says that if you don't believe it, you should know that unbelievers certainly do believe it. He knows, he says, because he used to be an unbeliever. And what he experienced back then was that Christians from various times and of various stripes all smelled the same.

So often, Christians looking at the current scene see nothing but division. Lewis admits that there's a lot of division and that it's lamentable. However, when a person reads Christian classics, he sees a unity of Christians across time and place. As I was reading this part of Lewis's essay, I couldn't help but think of some of the extreme and narrow believers I have known. Almost to a one it seemed as though they had never read anyone besides someone of their own time who already agreed with them. What Lewis basically says is that, by reading old books, you have a much better chance of getting over any sectarian tendencies. And you have a much better chance of being right when you think of someone else as a heretic. So, it's old books in '08. And I already have a short list. So far, I plan to read the following:

1. Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana. Maybe the City of God and/or the Confessions.
2. Pascal, Pensees
3. Aquinas, one of the summas
4. Thomas Paine, Common Sense ('cause I want to).

Some of these I've dabbled in before. But I've never read any of them all the way through.

Do you read very many classics? What was the best old book you ever read? Got any recommendations?


preacherman said...

I love C.S. Lewis. He is one of my favorite authors. Wonderful quotes and He is full of wisdom in every book he has ever written.

I hope and prayer that you had a wonderful Christmas and Happy New Year. I pray that God will bless you in 2008.
In Him,
Kinney Mabry

john alan turner said...

A couple of years ago I did one old book for every new book. It was fascinating to see how many of these "new ideas" are just repackaged wisdom from the great thinkers of days gone by!

There are obvious recommendations: Confessions by Augustine. Practicing the Presence of God by Brother Laurence. Everything by Lewis and Tozer. Mystics like Jean-Pierre de Caussade or Teresa of Avila.

I actually started by grabbing one of those devotional reading compendiums (like Spiritual Classics ed. Richard J. Foster & Emilie Griffin) and allowed that to point me to writers I was unfamiliar with.

Anonymous said...

Yes! I need you to read Anna Karinina by Tolstoy. I might want to do it some time for One Act Play! You could condense it and get back to me!
Happy New Year!
Your sister Shari

Frank Bellizzi said...

Very funny.