I recently discovered the preface written by C.S. Lewis for Saint Athanasius’ book On The Incarnation. In it, Lewis extols the virtue of reading old books and I found the wisdom particularly pertinent to today’s readers, who are like me and consume a great deal of online information. Though he wrote in a time when mobile reading wasn’t possible, his words apply to those who desire to read good books but get distracted by the ease of reading on the World Wide Web.
Lesson One: Read Primary Sources
As a teacher, Lewis notices that students are hesitant to dust Plato’s Symposium off the shelf and read it for themselves. “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,” writes Lewis. This is a mistake because Plato himself is much easier to read than his modern commentator. But because students are intimidated to approach the master himself, they content themselves with summaries that are confusing and don’t get to the heart of the original author’s intent.
In a modern day age driven by sound bites, the encouragement to go directly to the primary source is particularly appropriate. If I had read every single transcript of the plane interviews given by Pope Francis, for example, rather than relying on the “quotes” inserted in inaccurate articles plastered online, I would have avoided at least a little of the confusion I’ve experienced during his pontificate. The same is true for famous quotes shared in online memes. Did Saint Francis really say, “Preach the gospel and if necessary, use words?” I don’t’ know but if I followed Lewis’s advice and consulted primary sources, I would have a better chance of knowing who really said what.
On the matter of consulting primary works, Lewis concludes: “It has always therefore been one of my main endeavors as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.”
Lewis’s Second Lesson: Read old books in between the modern ones you consume.
Lewis isn’t suggesting refraining from contemporary literature completely. He’s saying we should expose ourselves to the great ideas found in old books in order to correct any errors assumed by our current generation. Every age, Lewis argues, has its blind spots or inaccurate assumptions and if we only read contemporary literature, our ability to recognize fallacies and refute them, is weakened.
“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,” says Lewis.
Balancing our consumption of modern day information with a consumption of great ideas (and even incorrect ideas) from previous generations aids in keeping our faulty thinking in check.
Therefore, his reading rule of thumb is as such: “…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.”
Now if you don’t mind, I have to put down my smart phone and tackle the entire Western cannon. I’ve got some reading to do…