I came across an article recently about the top ten new books to read in the coming year, and it reminded me of a statement by C.S. Lewis about the value of old books. With that in mind, I’d like to put Lewis’s statement out there for a new generation that may not be familiar with it, and give a few examples of how his assessment of new vs. old can help us today. I’ll refrain from any attempt at a top ten list, but hopefully, you’ll come away this week with a sense of what to include in your own “must read” list for the new year. Let’s start by rejecting what Lewis famously called “chronological snobbery”: “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” He continues,
“You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”
What solution did Lewis propose?
“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. Not of course that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”
Let’s flesh that out a little. Reading old books helps us in the following ways:
- It helps to protect us from repeating past mistakes. We may find our “new” problem was actually already soundly resolved centuries ago if we only do some research. As George Santayana remarked, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” As I’ve read more old books lately, I’ve been surprised at how many “modern” attacks against Christianity were being addressed by early Christians like Justin Martyr & Irenaeus over 1800 years ago.
- Reading old books helps us to recognize timeless truths as we see some principles successfully applied to various situations over the ages. It eliminates the variables of time, geography and culture as we see that some things were just as true for the ancient Greeks and the Jews and the Romans as they are for us today.
- Reading old books keeps us humble as we realize that our small contributions to history are only possible because we stand on the shoulders of giants. Yet this should also inspire us to follow in their footsteps and pick up where they left off.
- Reading old books keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously. The long-term perspective that results from reading authors from a range of thousands of years helps us see just how silly some of our current seriously-held views are. Just as fashion trends come and go, ideological fads do too. And many of our current trendy views will seem just as ridiculous 100 years from now as parachute pants from the 80’s seem today.
- Reading old books stretches us mentally. Yes, older books are often more difficult to read. The language tends to be more formal, and when it’s not, the slang used may be difficult to decipher without looking up some archaic words. But gold is rarely found without hard work, and there are some beautiful nuggets of wisdom hiding in some of those awkward (to us) passages. To draw a practical analogy, a lot of my professional growth as an engineer has come through trying to follow what a senior engineer had done to solve a problem that was beyond my skill set at the time. Don’t shy away from stretching yourself.
With that in mind, what will you read this year? The same faddish books that will be forgotten in a year? Or something that’s stood the test of time? Books you can read and safely let your mind atrophy without fear of any mental exercise being required? Or maybe something a little tougher to digest? Books that will congratulate you just for showing up? Or books that will make you realize you’re in the presence of greatness, and inspire you to build on their foundation and pursue still greater heights? Books that will simply affirm your own views? Or ones that will challenge the errors you may be overlooking? Invest your reading time wisely this coming year.
 C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (San Diego: Harvest/HBJ, 1955), p. 207-208.
 C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 202.
 George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Volume I, 1905.