In Praise of Old Books

For the past several years I have been immersing myself in current literature. The book nerd in me is always becoming obsessed over the latest offerings from authors both familiar and new to me. Listening to bookish podcasts can be so exciting as I hear about books I’ve never heard of and add them to my To-Be-Read list.

When I homeschooled my kids, I read plenty of old books. There were read-aloud selections for History, Language Arts, for Music, Art, and for bedtime. And I read old books for my own learning and for pleasure. In my mind, “old” could mean something written 50 years ago or 300 years ago–or more! In the book God in the Dock, C.S. Lewis presents a case for old books in his essay entitled “On the Reading of Old Books”. This is a much-loved and repeated quote from this essay:

“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”

Why? What is the point of reading old books? Aren’t they irrelevant, stuffy, full of archaic words and ideas, and just plain difficult to understand? I’m sure some are, but there is so much we can learn from past ideas and perspectives, past ways of living and speaking.

Here are Lewis’s three reasons why you should read old books:

1.”First-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.” Don’t choose a modern commentary on an ancient philosopher like Plato, for example. Instead, just read Plato. Lewis says you will be more able to understand Plato directly than some long-winded interpretation of the philosopher.

2. Avoid the nearsightedness of our own age. “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially 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.”

There is a certain “blindness” that today’s writers and thinkers have–“the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’ “…”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.” This will help us avoid making the same mistakes (aka history repeating itself)

3. To see the underlying theme of the Christian faith through the ages and not be swayed by modern “sub-Christian modes of thought”. Although there are many divisions within Christianity, there is a certain unifying thread running through the centuries of religious writings. Lewis has a substantial list of recommended reading, whether you are a seeker, a believer, or an emphatic unbeliever, as he was at one time.

So…of course this segues naturally into what old books are part of my spring/summer reading list. Here are the first four!

I’m re-reading Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen via audiobook. It’s been several years since I read any of her works, so I thought it was about time to pick up her books again. The incomparable Juliet Stevenson narrates this version and I highly recommend it!

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People is a book I only skimmed through while my son was studying the British Isles in eleventh grade. Since Alan and I are planning a trip to the UK in the next two years, I added this one to my reading list. This book was written in A.D. 731, so it is OLD, but not dull!

I just picked up The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson that contains an introduction by Mary Oliver. Although I’ve read quotes and passages by Emerson in the past, and have heard him referenced by countless others, I have never read “Nature” or “Self-Reliance”, his poetry or anything else of his. Have I been living under a rock all these years? It’s high time I get down to reading his works!!!

As it’s been years since I’ve read anything by the Brontes, other than Jane Eyre, I will be listening to Villette by Charlotte Bronte when I finish Northanger Abbey.


I would love to hear what old books you are reading or plan to read this year!

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