With so many books being published today, if you’re like me, it’s hard to keep up with all the ones you’d like to read.
In order to keep up with modern culture and know about the important conversations happening around us, we can be tempted to strictly focus on new books and ignore those from previous eras.
In an introduction to an English translation of On the Incarnation, a seminal work by the African theologian Athanasius, C.S. Lewis wrote about the importance of reading old books.
In fact, most of his introduction is spent encouraging readers to value works by authors who were dead and gone.
He wrote, “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.”
Of course, today, Lewis is one of those dead writers and his books now qualify for the advice he gave while living.
But why should you read books that are not quite hot off the presses?
Here’s five reasons from Lewis in his introduction and one from me.
1. Old writers are gifted communicators.
We often avoid classics because we think they’ll be difficult to understand, but Lewis says the hesitant modern reader will understand more than she expects because of the skill and wisdom of the old writer.
But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism.
2. Their ideas have been tested.
We don’t know all the ramifications of ideas unleashed in a new book. For old books, we can see where time has proven some ideas correct (and others dangerously wrong). But we can’t have that same perspective on newer books.
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.
3. They give us perspective on modern culture.
Dead writers give us new eyes with which to see our culture and ourselves better.
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. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. 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.
4. They challenge modern viewpoints.
Not only can dead writers give us perspective, they can rightly diagnosis and correct modern errors. It has often been said, the fish doesn’t know he’s wet. It is hard for us to objectively see the cultural milieu that surrounds us every day. But their water was different.
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. And that means the old books.
5. They show us the historic unity and strength of Christianity.
We can be so caught up in our present controversies and arguments, that we miss much of what has historically united the Church universal.
But if any man is tempted to think—as one might be tempted who read only contemporaries—that “Christianity” is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his own century, that this is not so. Measured against the ages “mere Christianity“ turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible.
6. They can’t disappoint you by acting like a jerk on social media.
Obviously, this is not from C.S. Lewis. But it is an unmistakable reality of modern life that people we respect and admire from afar and in the pages of their books can reveal themselves to be not quite as admirable on Twitter and Facebook.
Dead authors aren’t going to start tweeting new thoughts on current controversies or prominent politicians. They’re not going to post fake news on Facebook.
In all likelihood, they’ll be no new revelations about a moral failure. They aren’t perfect, but all the disappointments are already baked into who they are and what they’ve written.
Since we are extolling the virtues of dead writers, let me close with Lewis’ words instead of my own. Here’s his guideline for reading both new and old books.
It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another 2 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.