Monday, November 2, 2015

Thoughts on C.S. Lewis’ “On the Reading of Old Books”

“[…First-hand] knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.”

It is an apt way to wrap up my series of reviews on C.S. Lewis’ God in the Dock than his essay On the Reading of Old Books. When one is a book-lover, it’s always a pleasure to read not only books, but books written by other book-lovers. C.S. Lewis was just such an author. Although this particular essay was really an introduction to a translation of St. Athanasius’ The Incarnation of the Word of God, a lot of it resonated with me not only with reading theological books, but older literature in general.

“The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face.”

Of course now even C.S. Lewis’ works could be considered “old books,” but if modern audiences should chance to read this essay, they would learn a lot about the benefits of reading old “classics.”  Alas and alack, we live in a culture that is poorly equipped to enjoy reading, much less reading classic literature. Our culture is very media-desensitized, in that there is a pressure to constantly be taking in, to be absorbing data, to move on to the next bit of data. Technology has made it possible to be constantly listening to music and podcasts and soundbites, watching videos, updating our statuses, sending and receiving texts. Our minds have been conditioned to be constantly multitasking (although this is a proven impossibility; brains can only really focus on one thing at a time), constantly switching from one thing to another. I think it’s plausible that all this diagnosing with ADHD and ADD is wrong: if only a person with ADHD would stop forcing their brain from one thing to the next, they might regain their ability to slow down and concentrate.

“If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will not see the real bearing of what it said.”

Despite living in the Information Age, books have gotten unjustly stereotyped as out-of-date. When people I know find out I worked at a library for three years, their first questions are usually along the vein of, “Don’t you think libraries have outlived their usefulness now that we have the Internet and e-readers?” I usually respond by pointing out that libraries provide free internet, loan out e-books, as well as provide free access to new books, music, movies, video games, and are a hub for communities and families, if only we would be wise enough to make use of their services. But books are the same way: why read a book when you can look up the synopsis on Sparknotes? 

“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 old books [….]  Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. 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.”

Even if a person loves reading enough to get past the technological distractions and ignore peer pressure to be “cool” and just watch the movie version, most readers prefer to read new publications.  A classic is considered dusty, dry, and hard to understand. They have the reputation for being things that one is forced to read in school and write boring essays about, or things that we pretend we’ve read but never actually slogged through. This might be the reason that so many grown adults continue to read Young Adult fiction, novels targeted specifically toward people ten or so years younger than them.  Or one might read books only as assigned by a book club, or whatever is trending on Goodreads (again with the technological interference!) or what everyone else is reading.

“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.”

Now I’m not saying—and neither was C.S. Lewis, for that matter—that you should ONLY read old books. Though I have a tendency to veer toward classics (if nothing else I’ll have earned the right to be snooty about it), I know that this is not a balanced diet for the mind either.  The point I’m trying to make is that when choosing what to read, remember that reading opens up an entire world.  We like to use this term poetically; it makes for a good Photoshop illustration, of magic sparkles glowing out of an opened book or something. But it’s true in a less literal sense. Reading opens up worlds, illuminates ideas, presents opinions, that are new and different from what we might come across in our day-to-day lives. It would be a shame if we limited ourselves to just one time period or culture or style of writing. 

There are a nigh-infinite amount of books out there, and thus a nigh-infinite amount of worlds for us to explore.  

Go out and be adventurous.  

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