How Reading Old Books Gives Us New Perspective

3 Reasons to Overcome Bias and Understand the Whole Conversation

One trait common to leaders is a passion for books. Reading improves our thinking, people skills, and more. Leveraging a library of history, biography, philosophy, business, and psychology can give leaders a competitive advantage. But there’s a hidden bias working against us.

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.

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The implication is three-fold:

  • New is more valuable than old.
  • New is more relevant than old.
  • New is more accurate than old.

The book industry plays along. For as long as I can remember, there’s been a relentless focus on the new. Reporters, reviewers, podcasters, and bloggers mostly cover fresh voices and the latest releases. And bookstores dedicate less and less space for what the trade calls backlist—titles more than a year old.

In fact, booksellers typically give up on new books after sixty to ninety days and ship the unsold ones back to the publisher. Why? To make room on the shelves for the avalanche of still newer books in the pipeline—about a million every year.

There are some signs this is changing. User-directed sites like Goodreads promote old books along with the new. And anyone can now locate obscure, out-of-print books in a few clicks through Amazon, AbeBooks, or Project Gutenberg.

But why read old books in the first place?

Out with the New

The bias toward new books goes back a long time. C.S. Lewis addressed it in an introduction to a translation of St. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation back in 1944.

“There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books,” he began the essay.

Lewis wasn’t calling for a boycott of new books but for a more balanced approach to what we read. “I myself am a writer, [and] I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books,” Lewis said. “But if he must read only the new or the old, I would advise him to read the old.”

3 Reasons to Read the Old Books

Lewis gave three reasons why we ought to read old books, especially the classics. Lewis’s focus in an introduction to a book about the Incarnation, was theology. But the point applies more broadly as well.

1. Old Books Have Been Tested

A new book has yet to be proven by the test of time. Its ideas are still on trial and non-specialists may be in no position to judge it.

Over time, if a book has any staying power “all its implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) [are] brought to light.” Old books that have not been forgotten have been remembered for a reason. Something about them stands up and demands our attention.

2. Old Books Give Us 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.

You the reader have little idea what is being said, because you missed the beginning of the conversation. Reading the old books lets you understand the whole conversation.

3. Old Books Remove Our Blinders

Every era has its own particular outlook, which is good at seeing certain truths and blind to others. Contemporary writers who seem to oppose one another share many of the same unspoken assumptions.

None of us can fully escape this blindness, but the cataracts get a lot worse if we read only new 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,” Lewis explained.

The perspective that reading old books can give us is important not because our ancestors always got it right, but because they saw things we might easily miss, and wrote these things down for our benefit.

“Two heads,” said Lewis, “are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.” 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.

A Simple Rule to Counteract the Bias

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 compromised 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.”

Question: What old book has meant the most to you? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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