C. S. Lewis on Reading Old Books

One of my goals each semester is to try to convince students that writers of the past are not only worth reading but are also much more enjoyable and more valuable to read than they may have imagined. With this in mind, I occasionally reread what C. S. Lewis had to say about reading old books:

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator….

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology….

Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books…. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than 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.

One may quibble with this or that detail in the essay. For example, I’m not sure that our tendency to read modern books over old ones always springs from humility. Perhaps laziness often plays a role in such decisions as well. But Lewis is onto something. Believers can benefit from reading older writers from time to time. As Lewis put it, such reading helps “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.” Reading old books tends to keep us from thinking only in terms of contemporary assumptions, and it helps us see how people from other eras have addressed the problems common to human experience. As you think about books you want to read this year, you may want to consider including several titles that were written long before blogging, iGadgets, and social media were cultural givens. You may just find such books more interesting and more helpful than you imagined.

Lewis’s comments were first published as the introduction to a 1944 edition of Athanasius’s work On the Incarnation, and they were later reprinted as a separate essay “On the Reading of Old Books” in Lewis’s God in the Dock.

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