C. S. Lewis on reading old books

C. S. Lewis on the value of reading old books:

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. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. … 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.

The quote comes from an introduction he wrote for a translation of On the Incarnation. In the same book, Lewis recommended reading one old book for every contemporary book or two. I agree that reading old books provides perspective on the present, and I do read old books from time to time, but I don’t come close his recommended ratio of old books.

What are some old books you’ve enjoyed or intend to read?

Update: Related post, Old math books

18 thoughts on “C. S. Lewis on reading old books

  1. By all means, read St. Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation.” I also recommend the mystagogical lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem very highly. I’m currently reading a sermon by St. Basil the Great, the first of his series on the Hexaemeron, and also recommend it highly. He touches on theories that sound just like… Richard Dawkins. I think that is one great value to old books. “Nil dictum est quod non dictum prius,” may be a stretch, but it is a very healthy antidote to modern pretensions to see that most of the “new” ideas being floated have antecedents reaching back centuries or even millenia. Here’s another example. “Religion, esp. Christianity, is just the apotheosis of an idealized human hero.” Modern, right? No. It’s found in the Book of Wisdom — yet another book I recommend in the highest terms, along with Sirach — in the Deuterocanon of Catholic and Orthodox Bibles. (I am tempted to make the case that when the Deuterocanon was thrown out by the Reformers, the errors rebutted in them were destined to return, but that is for a different post.) So much to read, so little time.

  2. Old books don’t have to be weighty tomes of philosophy or religion to be worthwhile. For example, here’s an interesting blog post about the 1950 Betty Crocker cookbook. You can learn a lot by paying attention to what was implicit in old books, even old cookbooks.

  3. I Would suggest Don Casmurro, by Machado de Assis. However, it is a brazilian Book. I think there is a translated edition in english. Anyway, it is the best braziliam book ever writen.
    Another suggestion: 1984, by Geore Orwell and Odyssea, by Homero.
    With Homero we can lear how identities were shaped in the past, especially the role of homeland…

  4. As C.S. Lewis was partial to the Greek classics, I would think he may refer to that as the old books. Last week, I got Project Gutenberg’s RSS announcement that the ebook “Alcestis” by Euripides is available for download. Lewis’s recommendation came to mind and I hurriedly downloaded it; only to find it was coded in modern Greek! Happily, there’s one site one (http://classics.mit.edu/Euripides/alcestis.html) where one can read it in modern English.

  5. I believe Lewis is referring to more ancient books than some of you suggest. The Betty Crocker cookbook may seem ancient to some of us (i.e. 60 years old) but I think Lewis was talking about books hundreds and thousands of years old. They have stood the test of time. Books from the past 50 to 100 years still share much of our contemporary outlook. “People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.” – C.S. Lewis

  6. Michael, I’m sure you’re right. Books 50 to 100 years old provide some perspective, but not nearly as much as books 500 to 1000 years old. Lewis would be offended or at least amused that we now think of him as an “old” author so soon after his books were written.

  7. In Confessions, Augustine mentioned the fact that in his time, natives of Rome sought pleasure in theatre (often vulgar and obscene) and respected actors and atheletes far more than the centurions who protected them. Just another great value of old books: the way they show how the props and actors may change over centuries, but the script so often repeats itself.

  8. I’m reading The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodr Dostoevsky. I recommend it very strongly.

  9. The Varmint by Owen Johnson
    Dink Stover by Owen Johnson
    Colonel Effingham’s Raid Berry Fleming

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