Why Read Old Books (even on Kindle)?

Why Read Old Books (even on Kindle)?

        Not too many years ago, I would have laughed at the suggestion that I read old books. That may sound strange, but I was truly a “modern” with such a faith in progress that only the latest and greatest book would do. Now to be sure, knowledge and life does know a progression of sorts. But over time (like for 15 years), my motto was “the newer the truer,” and it was failing me.   I was discovering that the latest books were often more shallow than certain classics that went before; and I was becoming what I could only describe as “startlingly ignorant.”

My gaze gradually began to include older writings as I received encouragement from the work of two thoughtful believers—Os Guinness and C.S. Lewis. Guinness is striking in his explanation of the importance of remembering. We moderns have a hard time here because we are preoccupied “with the present at the expense of the past. As television superjournalist Bill Moyers lamented, ‘We Americans seem to know everything about the last twenty-four hours, but very little of the past sixty centuries or the last sixty years.’   Television is biased against memory and history with its very pace and style—the ceaseless, breathless flow of the now renders viewers incapable of remembering.

I was also challenged by Guinness in my “modern tendency to abuse rather than use the past.” He explains, “Remembering has always been one of the most important modes of human thinking; it is a key to identity, faith, wisdom, renewal, and the dynamic of a living tradition. Remembering, therefore, is much more than mental recall. It makes the difference between tradition as the living faith of the dead and traditionalism as the dead faith of the living.

Understood this way, remembering is never nostalgia, which is a symptom of the sickness of homelessness. {“Nostalgia” is often one of those handy labels that progressive moderns employ to silence and ignore fuller-vision-believers who speak truths of the remembered past. Bold type mine.}   Nor must it be confused with tourism and historical theme parks, which seek access to the past without allowing the tradition of the past to exercise authority over the present. When the past becomes reduced to products and images by entertaining, advertising, and selling, we know about the past, yet are not part of it.”

C.S. Lewis had a similar appreciation of the past. He explained his reasons in an introduction for the translation of an “old book” by Athanasius, who died in 373 A.D.   I quote Lewis at length for clarity:

“Naturally since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it.   It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation that began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is being said. . . . The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (‘mere Christianity’ as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one til you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old to every three new ones.

Every age has its own outlook. It is especially 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. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of the past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we would absolutely deny. They thought they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’—lies where we have never suspected it . . . 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. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only pallative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. 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.” (written in 1944)

Are there any Scriptures that would support the principles proposed by Guinness and Lewis? Yes. Three are:

Deuteronomy 32:7: “Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations,”

Romans 15:4, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”

And from Jesus: “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” (Matthew 13:52).


Classics: Old Books of Time Proven Value


To go along with the call to include old books in our personal and book club reading, here is a sample (incomplete) list of a few worthies.   To get help on this list I interviewed, Ken, the owner of Logos bookstore in Nashville asking him what those who frequent his bookstore read most from the past. Here are some:


C.S. Lewis himself is now a classic. Everyone knows the Narnia series. But check out Mere  Christianity; The Screwtape Letters, and The Great Divorce.

Older Devotionals: Most know the modern Jesus Calling. Check out older devotionals like Oswald Chambers’, My Utmost for His Highest; The Valley of Vision (Puritan Prayers); any of the books by E. Stanley Jones, and books like Celtic Daily Prayer

Biographical works like Roland Bainton’s bio of Martin Luther, Here I Stand.

Doctrinal explorations like Athanasius, On the Incarnation; R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God and John Stott, The Cross of Christ.

Profound sermons like the works of Charles Spurgeon and the rich Scriptural exposition of D. Maryn Lloyd-Jones in Studies in the Sermon on the Mount and Spiritual Depression.

Autobiographical novels like Peace Child by Don Richardson, Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place and Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy . See also the short stories of Flannery O’ Conner.

Letters of wise Christians of the past such as Samuel Rutherford’s The Loveliness of Christ.

Classic writings on prayer: the works of E.M. Bounds; the anonymous The Kneeling Christian, and Edith Schaeffer’s The Life of Prayer.

Older works like St. Augustine, The Confessions; Blaise Pascal, Pensées (French for “Thoughts”)

Modern Classics like writings by G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy; James Sire’s The Universe Next Door: Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, Gene Edwards, A Tale of Three Kings, and Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality.

There are so many more. Sorry to have left out some of your favorites.   LH


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