New Books or Old?
I've been thinking over some things I've read on blogs recently, such as these thoughts from Mama Squirrel on the reading of "Great Books," by which we usually understand "old books" or "classics."
C.S. Lewis said something similar in an introduction he wrote:
There is a strange idea abroad 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. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. 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. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours 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.
(Read the whole thing here.)
I could not agree more whole-heartedly with Lewis about firsthand knowledge. It has always been my habit to look for original sources. When I read For the Children's Sake by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, which summarizes some of the educational principles of Charotte Mason, I had to read Charlotte Mason's original writings for myself. When someone told me that the elements of the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) matched up with the Biblical words knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, I did a comprehensive study on those words in the Bible to check it out for myself. When I read a book and find an excerpt or quote from another author, I try to track down the original source. Sometimes those original sources are a little harder reading than the average modern best-seller, but not always. Great writers weren't writing for professors or academics--they were writing for their fellow-citizens. They were writing for us.
Later in his essay, Lewis compares reading only modern books to joining, at eleven o'clock in the evening, a conversation that has been going on since eight o'clock in the morning. We can understand only part of what we hear, because we lack the context and references to earlier discussion that the other participants have. What Lewis failed to realize, perhaps, was that a time might come when the only folks discussing, at least publicly and loudly, were the late-comers who disdained to take the time to consider any prior discussion--postmodern culture at its finest.
No one has to choose exclusively one or the other, but taken as a whole, the "classics" will yield greater depth and insight than an equal amount of reading in modern writing. History has already done the sifting, and those unworthy books from long ago have sunk into oblivion, leaving us the best of the best. Modern books wait upon history to do that (how many books published in 2006, prize-winners and all, will still be on the shelves to be read in 2106?). Book for book, or page for page, proven classics are a safer gamble than the New York Times best-seller list.
But in addition to those timeless classics, there are timely books--books that speak to us today, now, in these circumstances. They may not endure as classics, but they mean something right now, and they add something to our culture and understanding that old books will not give us.
I'm glad it's not an either-or proposition. I love to read old books. But I could not entirely give up reading new ones, either.