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Why read old books?

Why read old books?
Thursday 26th November 2020

As summer looms and the holidays stretch before us, many of us are hoping to read more books. But what books will we read? Will we read the latest bestsellers? Will we browse bookshops and online catalogues, and read the books that are receiving the latest rave reviews? It’s not a bad method. In fact, reading the “latest and greatest” can be very exciting. But in the next few paragraphs, I want to put forward a case for reading not only new books (even the latest and greatest), but also reading a good number of old – even very old – books.

It was C.S. Lewis, one of the greatest readers of old books, who first alerted me to the value of reading books from past centuries. He once wrote an essay about it, “On the reading of old books,” which was first published as an introduction to a new translation of a book from the fourth century. Lewis pointed out something very interesting, which I have always found convincing. He pointed out that every age in history – including our own – has its own blind-spots, and that these blind-spots (being blind-spots!) are not noticed by the people who live in their own particular time.

It’s only by getting out of your own period in history that you begin to properly notice the shortfalls of your own age. That’s because there are so many things we simply take for granted about our own century, even when we think we are taking one particular side in a controversial contemporary debate. Lewis writes:

All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook … Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions.[1]

For Lewis, the solution for seeing past your generation’s own blind-spots is to read old books. (He points out, quite cutely, that the books of the future would also be a great corrective, “but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”) When we read old books, their mistakes (logical, factual or moral) don’t tend to hurt us, since, from the vantage point of our own century, we tend to see through any errors pretty easily. But the things they got right, which we have since lost, suddenly strike us with new force.

In the twenty-first century, many of us are bemoaning the loss of many things, whether it’s connection with nature, or relational intimacy, or moral clarity, or a sense of meaning. Yet (paradoxically) it’s often difficult for us to even properly define these things that we seem to have lost. It’s all a blur. Yes, we know things are moving fast. We know that we are “progressing” into the future. But are we losing some of the important fundamentals of being human?

Clarity, as Lewis suggests, comes from many of the old books from past centuries. Of course, some old books were just plain silly, or just plain wrong. But it’s easy enough now to see the silliness and wrongness – those ideas can’t harm us much. But other old books do something profound. They open our eyes to possibilities of life and living that we would not otherwise even think of. And they arouse in us a hunger. This hunger is not merely a hunger for what is past, but a hunger for what is real, for what our own generation has lost.

At Morling College, we have a lot of old books in our library and on our office shelves – books from throughout history, and of course the Jewish and Christian scriptures too, which are themselves collections of books from ancient times. It’s not uncommon to find faculty and students who are reading old books, books that are hundreds, even thousands, of years old. Of course, we read modern books too (there are lots of those). But, if my own experience is anything to go by, it’s often in the old books that we find things that take our breath away. They’re the books that seem to give us those “aha” moments, when we suddenly realise how much our own age has shifted from what seems more real.

At this point, I suspect C.S. Lewis would only want to encourage us, saying “Yes! The more old books the better. Read on!”

To me, it’s advice that seems more relevant than ever. That’s why, on my summer reading list, I’ve included some of Herodotus, Sophocles, Aeschylus and Plato, and a sprinkling of Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Spurgeon. Plus lots of the Christian scriptures. Oh, and I’ll throw in one or two of the “latest and greatest” as well, including Shoshana Zuboff’s magisterial The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and David Attenborough’s A Life on our Planet – both of which are grappling (so I’m led to understand) with where we’re going, and how on earth we got here.

 

[1] St. Athanasius on the Incarnation, translated and edited by a religious of C.S.M.V. with an Introduction by C.S. Lewis, 2nd Revised Edition (London: A.R. Mowbray & Co Ltd, 1953), 5.

Peter Friend

Written by Peter Friend

Peter Friend (BA Hons, Dip.Ed., M.Div) is the Dean of Students at Morling. He also teaches Hebrew, Greek and New Testament at Morling. He is also a children’s author and poet. His children’s picture book What’s the Matter, Aunty May? was shortlisted in Australia for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, and he is the author of the children’s novel The Cliff Runner and many published poems and short stories.

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