Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Why I Read Old Books

I have a list of books that I am currently reading. It's on the sidebar of this blog -- down on the righthand side. There is almost always an old book on that list. Lately, I've been on a C.S. Lewis kick. Granted, his books aren't really that old, but I read a quote of his recently that reminded me of why I like to read old books. He wrote:

"It's 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 three new ones.... Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good for seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all therefore need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.... 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.... The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds and this can only be done by reading old books."*

I know McLaren is really popular right now. And God knows I'm a huge fan of N.T. Wright. I love reading the newest books, the latest scholarship, the current thoughts. But let's not fall prey to chronological snobbery thinking that if it's old it must be rejected. Read McLaren, and, after you're done, pick up Bernard of Clairveaux. Read Dallas Willard and mix in something from Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross or William Law or Jonathan Edwards.

If you only read one kind of thinker -- even if it is a particularly good kind of thinker (or a new kind of thinker?) -- you'll end up being the very thing you rebel against right now.

That's why I read old books.

*C.S. Lewis, "On the Reading of Old Books," in FIRST AND SECOND THINGS:ESSAYS ON THEOLOGY AND ETHICS, ed. Walter Hooper (Glasgow: Collins, 1985), pp. 27-28.