Reading Old Books

by Karla Perry

Old books carry a certain weight of knowledge uncommon in new books. Authors of the past were always well read of the old books that came before them. The best new books draw from the old. Their authors pull the knowledge of generations into our own when old books are consulted.

I’ve recently found the treasure of an old book to add to my growing collection. Its worn leather binding and yellowed pages harken back to 1836. Within its fragile pages are the notes from the Constitutional Convention written by the Chief Justice of New York. Its printing predates the publication of James Madison’s own famous notes. It is not simply a book about history, it is history.

We live in a society that esteems the modern way of life. The faster we move the less time we have. The reading of books, especially old books, will quickly become extinct if we do not intentionally keep the practice alive. I hope to never see the travesty of book stores and libraries going out of fashion.

C.S. Lewis, a great friend of books, wrote “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.”

If we only read and consume modern literature, we will never see more than our own way of thinking. We will think our thoughts the only thoughts. We will think the debates that consume our social media to be the only way to see the world. We won’t even know the history of the thoughts we think are our own. We may even think our thoughts novel and unique.

Reading old books keeps us from making these mistakes of esteeming our own generation as one which functions on its own self-contained knowledge. Authors throughout the ages are participating in a timeless conversation, each contributing to his own generation and every generation thereafter. We do not write alone. Writers are readers. We write with the host of writers down through the centuries that have impacted our thoughts and form. But we cannot do enough to save readers from reading old books, too.

Reading old books removes the limits of our own life, transporting us into ages we have not experienced to glean the wisdom and knowledge we lack in our own generation.

C.S. Lewis wisely advises that “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.” 

Reading books was once a privilege of the educated nobility and scholars of a society. The Protestant Reformation, with the aid of the printing press, placed the Bible in the homes of the common people. Teaching the populace to read the Bible lent itself to education for the poor and a literate society. The ability to read books is a fruit of The Reformation. 

Let us be a people who keep society alive by reading books, especially old books.

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