Sunday, May 20, 2012

C.S. Lewis on Reading Old Books

I read a lot of old books.  I read less that is contemporary, and I've always felt a tad guilty.  Yes, I try to read  quite a few new poems, a few new novels, and a few less new essays, but much of my reading matter predates my birth.  My reading habits may seem odd since I specialized in modern literature in grad school, but as I've grown older, I've gradually gained more interest in history and in old books in general.  Although I don't really need any justification for my taste for old books, C.S. Lewis lays out some good reasons that I appreciate. (Perhaps because they give me a warm glow of self-approval!)

"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 . . . .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, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H.G. Wells and Karl Barth.  None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken out 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 palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books."

--C.S. Lewis from "On the Reading of Old Books"

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