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

15 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

  10. Believe it or not, C. S. Lewis recommended a cookbook. Here’s something I wrote a few years ago for the New York C. S. Lewis Society:

    Jack and the Bookshelf #23
    Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, by Isabella Beeton
    By Dale Nelson
    According to my copy, there are “numerous abridged and enlarged versions of Household Management” from the 19th and 20th centuries, and we can’t be sure which one Lewis referred to on 26 August 1960, when he wrote to Anne Scott: “Cookery books are not such bad reading. Have you Mrs Beeton with the original preface? It is delicious.”
    My Oxford World’s Classics abridgement (published in 2000) does include Mrs. Beeton’s preface. She begins by confessing that she’d never have undertaken the project of preparing the book if she’d known how much work it would entail, but the sight of so much “discomfort and suffering” due to mismanagement impelled her. “Men are now so well served out of doors, –at their clubs, well-ordered taverns, and dining houses, that in order to compete with the attractions of these places, a mistress must be thoroughly acquainted with the theory and practice of cookery, as well as be perfectly conversant with all the other arts of making and keeping a comfortable home.” Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope could have invented a major plot element from that sentence.
    Along with recipes for more familiar foodstuffs, she provides recipes involving rabbit, calf’s feet, calf’s head, stewed ox-tails, roast goose, roast larks, eels, turtles, etc. She reminds readers of game-laws and ventures an opinion about the inevitability of poaching. If, reading a Victorian novel, you have wondered what cowslip wine or “ices” or gruel or beef tea were, you may find out here. Writing before households had refrigerators, she is at pains to tell which foodstuffs are in season in a given month. Reading Beeton could save modern historical novelists from committing howlers.
    Her book contains much more than recipes, e.g. etiquette guiding the paying of morning calls and the arrangement of guests for dinner parties. She sets forth the duties of lady’s maids and directions for preparations they may need to know, such as how to make pomatum for hair (quarter-pound of lard, 2-pennyworth of castor oil, and scent). Female servants’ wintertime morning duties may include black-leading the fireplace grate and starting the day’s fires. Dairy-maids should use a horsehair sieve to remove foreign objects from milk. Diet for wet-nurses is prescribed. Mrs. Beeton warns of nurses who may surreptitiously give narcotics to babies to keep them quiet. In case of an emergency when a physician is not immediately available, she tells how to bleed a patient. “If you have not got a lancet, use a pen-knife or anything suitable that may be at hand.” Young women are susceptible to hysterics; in the event of a fit, make sure the sufferer’s stays are loosened. Cholera may be avoided by means of strict cleanliness and “judicious ventilation.” She has legal advice, too, and provides a model for an IOU (for ten pounds to pay for coal).
    Household Management is a valuable window into respectable Victorian England.

    –Dale Nelson

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