On the Reading of Old Books

One C. S. Lewis essay you must read is “On the Reading of Old Books,” which is found in the collection of essays entitled God in the Dock, as well as in an introduction to Athanasius’ book On the Incarnation of the Word. You can also find it at this link. Here are some highlights from it:

“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…Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light…

“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…

“We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books… We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” – lies where we have never suspected it… 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.”

SDG

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