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–C. S. Lewis
In his introduction to Athanasius’ On The Incarnation, C. S. Lewis engages in something of an apologetic for reading old books. Lewis felt reading old books was essential, even though the wisdom of reading old books is not always self-evident. But it is a good idea to read old books, and you should value reading them for they will benefit you in numerous ways.
There are a number of bad reasons to avoid reading old books, which you should never use as an excuse to avoid reading old works of literature. I list four of them here, quoting Lewis liberally to make the point.
1. Don’t Avoid Old Books Because You Won’t Understand Them
“This is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books,” writes Lewis (11). But that’s certainly not the case: “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” (11). First hand knowledge of old books “is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire” than secondhand knowledge.
Lewis applies the principle to Christian works:
This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself. (11)
2. Don’t Avoid Old Books Because You Won’t Understand Contemporary Issues
Old books teach you how to understand new books. If you only read what’s new or what’s important at the moment, you may not have a good picture of things at all. A person needs a good “mere Christianity,” “which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books” (12).
3. Don’t Avoid Old Books Because You Have It All Figured Out
“Every age has its own outlook,” writes Lewis, “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” (12).
The medieval generation succumbed to Aristotlean thought to a high degree. Only when the reformation emphasis of going back to the sources, to the old books, occurred, did Europe begin to correct its generational mistakes. Old books correct new mistakes. Lewis knew that well.
4. Don’t Avoid Old Books Because They Won’t Feed You
Early Christian literature seems somewhat weird to us today. It often uses big doctrinal terms and speaks of a spirituality foreign to our mindset. Yet that is precisely why it will feed you spiritually. You need to get outside of life-situation, walk in someone else’s shoes.
Lewis makes a similar point when he discusses books of devotion and books of doctrine:
For my own part, I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotional than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand. (15)
Though Lewis speaks generally of doctrinal books here, it remains true that reading old doctrinal books will make your heart sing unbidden as you work through “a tough bit of theology.”
Don’t be afraid or make excuses when it comes to reading old books. They will open your mind’s eye to things that you may never have imagined without reading them. Start with Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. The worst case scenario is that you will learn more about how Christ became man. And that’s not such a bad scenario at all.
Picture by Albert Bridge without alteration. License.