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Most of my books are old books. I don't mean the physical copies are old (though plenty of them are); I mean they were written long ago. Many of my scholarly books were written before 1945, and the bulk of my novels and other literary works were written before 1900. Most of my philosophical and theological books were written centuries ago—and many of them go back two millennia.
Why do I give houseroom to so many old books? Why isn't my library stocked with New York Times bestsellers?
That's a good question. I don't consciously avoid new books; for example, I recently enjoyed David Berlinski's The Devil's Delusion. Yet I'm continually driven back to older books. It's as if the sort of knowledge I am looking for cannot often be found in newer books. But why should that be?
C. S. Lewis sheds light on this question. He writes:
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. . . . 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. [from "On the Reading of Old Books," in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Eerdmans, 1970), p. 202]
Lewis's remarks here have great resonance for me. I often find myself out of step with the spirit and thought of our time. The avant-garde novels that are touted as profound, I usually find depressing or degrading; the political writings (whether left or right) that are held out as the key to social salvation, I often find shallow and ideological; the works of philosophy that are praised by professors, I generally find obscure in thought and nihilistic in direction. Yet when I activate my trusty time machine—my collection of old books—I never fail to find novels that edify rather than depress, political writings that promote humanity rather than ideology, and works of philosophy that reveal cosmos rather than chaos. The writers of older times could see things that most of our current writers cannot.
A Needed Vantage Point
Old books don't have to be very old to work their magic. The writings of Lewis himself, for example, are relatively recent—only mid-twentieth century. Yet Lewis's perceptions are distant enough from those of most modern people to be remarkably useful in criticizing the world of today. For example, his Abolition of Man analyzes technocratic global civilization—our civilization—and pinpoints the intellectual and spiritual roots of its failings.
But Lewis's insights of 1943 did not arise out of a vacuum. As a teacher of Medieval and Renaissance English literature, with a solid early education in the Greek and Roman classics and deep reading in the Christian theological tradition, he was able to draw upon the thoughts of the wisest writers of the past to assess the ruling ideas of his own age. Old books gave him, not an Archimedean point on which to stand (for he admits that no age was perfect in knowledge), but at least another hill, from which vantage point he could see the modern world in a less flattering light.
In subsequent installments of this series, I will discuss some old books that can provide the vantage point of that "other hill," which we need in order to properly see our own, or (to use a different metaphor, from one of the greatest old books) that can illuminate the shadow-world of the contemporary cave. •
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