I Read Dead People
“There never was a time when those that read at all, read so many books by living authors rather than books by dead authors. Therefore there was never a time so completely parochial, so completely shut off from the past.”
“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.”
C.S. Lewis on avoiding chronological snobbery
In the first half of the last century both TS Eliot and CS Lewis observed that modern people typically only read modern books. The situation now is of course even worse.
Lewis writes in the introduction to On the Incarnation: “This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.”
Taking a quick walk through your local Christian bookstore demonstrates the truth of that observation. Even scanning my Facebook newsfeed shows the same thing. My Christian friends (the ones who are not involved in classical education) post steady streams of quotes from Beth Moore, Joyce Meyers, and Max Lucado. Sometimes I’m tempted to respond, “Do you read any dead people?”.
It’s pretty ironic given the above quote that C.S. Lewis is likely to be the only dead author modern Christians read. Those of us involved in classical education know what riches await those who seek the wisdom of the past. So, why don’t people read old books?
Yes, older books are hard. They contain difficult, sometimes archaic, vocabulary, sophisticated sentence structure and long paragraphs. Old books demand something from the reader. But I don’t think that’s the real reason people don’t make the effort. Moderns, yes even modern Christians, have fallen prey to a certain evolutionary bias in their thinking.
Evolution teaches that because man is evolving and progressing from simple to complex, that which is newest is that which is best. Old books are by definition less worthy than new books. So when moderns want the best thought on any given subject they naturally turn to the latest and therefore best writing. New and improved have become synonymous.
But, as Lewis argues, modern thought is precisely what we don’t need. We are already too steeped in our modern assumptions and biases. We need old books, ancient thoughts, to shake us free from the mass of common assumptions modern authors share. “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.”
Like Lewis, I too am a writer and therefore, “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 its 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.”
I read dead people. How about you?