In Defense of Old Books

We live in a culture that places a premium on things that are new. Discontent, if not a virtue, is certainly a way of life. Understanding this, marketers highlight “newness” as a primary attribute of their products, assuming that this equates to better.

Lines of Old Books with Leather Covers - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/naphtalina, Image #5885818

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/naphtalina

The implication is three-fold:

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  1. New is more valuable than old.
  2. New is more relevant than old.
  3. New is more accurate than old.

In the book publishing world where I work professionally, this is especially true. Not surprisingly, all the bestsellers lists are dominated by new books. In fact, booksellers typically give up on new books after 60 days and ship the unsold ones back to the publisher. They do this to make room on the shelves for the avalanche of new books that are in the pipeline. Last year alone, more than 1 million new books were published in the U.S.

That’s why it was refreshing to read again C.S. Lewis’ Introduction to On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius. I am teaching this book in my adult Sunday school class as part of a series on the early church fathers. In preparation for that, I spent the entire first session on Lewis’ introduction. In it, he makes the case for old books, arguing why it is so important to be steeped in their writings.

He begins his essay by saying that we often mistakenly think that old books are for scholars rather than for the rest of us. As a result, we often think it is better to read some new book about some old book rather than read the book itself. Instead of reading, for example, Plato’s Symposium directly, the modern reader

would rather read some book that is ten times as long, all about ‘isms’ and influences and only once in every twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said” (p. 5).

Lewis says that we do this because we don’t think we can understand these great minds. But he then argues that it is precisely this very greatness that makes the original author more understandable than the modern commentator. As a result, the old books are usually easier and more delightful to read.

Lewis then suggests that if we must choose between an old book and a new book—particularly in the area of theology—we should always select the old one. He then provides three reasons why:

  1. Old books are safer. A new book has yet to be proven. It is still on trial. Furthermore, amateurs are in no position to judge it. “It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light” (p. 4). Conversely, old books have stood the test of time. The ages bear testimony to the validity of their ideas.
  2. Old books provide context. Lewis compares reading a new book to stepping into the middle of a conversation. People may be in the middle of a debate about a point made earlier in the conversation. Or perhaps they are laughing and making asides. Regardless, you have no idea what is being said, because you missed the beginning of the conversation. Reading the old books provides context, so you understand the entire conversation.
  3. Old books provide a corrective. Every age has its own particular outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and blind to others. Even writers who seem to oppose one another share the same contemporary outlook. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern 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” (p. 5).

Lewis is careful to point out that there is no magic in the past. Certainly, when it comes to theology, we can’t point to a “Golden Age.” Even in the New Testament era, heresies abounded. Immorality was rampant. People then were no more clever than they are now. They made as many mistakes as we. But—and it’s a big but—they did not make the same mistakes. He notes, “Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction” (p. 5).

In this sense, Lewis says quite humorously, books from the future would be just as good a corrective as books from the past, but, unfortunately, they are more difficult to obtain.

In the final analysis, Lewis is a realist. He concedes that his readers will not likely confine themselves exclusively to old books. (And it’s a good thing for those of us who make our living publishing new ones!) He compromises by saying, “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.”

I couldn’t agree more. That’s why I am particularly excited about reading these early church fathers, some of whom I have read before and some that will be brand new—at least to me.

Question: Do you agree with Lewis’ basic premise? What old books have you found to be particularly valuable?
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