Some of C. S. Lewis’s essays found in collections today were not written as “stand-alone” pieces but rather connected to other works. One prime example is “On the Reading of Old Books,” which first appeared as an introduction to—well—an old book. In this case, it was (as noted on the left) St. Athanasius’s The Incarnation of the Word of God, which testifies to that early Christian Father’s fidelity to what we now call the Nicene Creed. Athanasius was exiled from the Roman Empire more than once for standing firm against the heresy of Arianism, which declared that Jesus was a created being and not on the same level as God the Father.
It’s not hard to understand why Lewis would want to write an introduction to such a book, given his own convictions about the necessity for supporting the Nicene statement of orthodox Christian doctrine.
The reason, though, why this introduction has been excised from its original format in the book and treated separately is due to its timeless message that goes beyond simply St. Athanasius. Lewis believed that many of the “old books” contained insights that a current generation could profit from. The problem is that the current generation in his day had lost sight of significant writings that have existed for centuries. And if that were true of Lewis’s generation, it’s demonstrably even more true in our day.
“There is a strange idea abroad,” Lewis begins, “that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books.” From his own experience as an Oxford tutor, Lewis discovered that students who might want to learn something about an ancient philosopher such as Plato would seldom go directly to Plato, opting instead for some current commentary on the man. “He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about ‘isms’ and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.” Lewis concludes that one of the main reasons for this is that students feel so inferior to a philosopher like Plato that they are rather intimidated. That should not be the case, Lewis states.
Lewis insists that reading the original source might be far easier and delightful than the cowed student realizes. As a historian, I’ve always urged my students to go back to the original sources as much as possible. Sometimes they can shed more light on commentaries than commentaries shed on the original sources. That doesn’t mean that secondary sources should be shunned; I certainly use many in my courses. But the cornerstone for them should always be what is written in the original works. Any secondary source should rely extensively on the work/event it is commenting on.
As an author himself, Lewis was not telling anyone to stop reading new books. But he did offer this counsel about any new book.
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.
Why that recommendation?
Every age has blind spots. Perhaps some of those old books, Lewis suggests, might help us see ours. They might be able to provide a correction or two in order that we not repeat mistakes. Out of all the pertinent comments Lewis makes in this essay, there is one that stands out to me, not only for its premise, but also for the artful, even beautiful way he phrases it:
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.
Lewis hastens to add that people in previous ages were not any cleverer than people today. They made mistakes also. The key, though, is that they were probably not the same mistakes, and therefore, we might learn from them wherever they were right. “Two heads are better than one,” he adds, “not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.” The essay ends with this fascinating personal experience for Lewis:
So there is the challenge before us: Are we going to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds? Will we read some of those “old books” and learn some things from them? Or will we read only modern books and maintain a certain measure of cultural and spiritual blindness?