An Invitation to Join The Book Club of the Ages.

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Think back with me: what’s the last book you read? Not your textbooks or your washing machine owner’s manual, but your free-time reading. Was it from Oprah’s Book List or maybe the New York Times Bestsellers? The newest spine-freezer or rib-tickler or even (yikes) bodice-ripper?

In the spirit of the coming New Year and self-improvement, let me try to convince you to change up your reading habits. Let’s consider C. S. Lewis’s advice:

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.[1]

Ugh, those stuffy relics they tried to get me to read in Humanities 101?

Yes, precisely. Reading old books will save us from ourselves.

Every age . . . 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. . . . None of us can fully escape [the characteristic blindness of the twentieth (or twenty-first) century], but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. . . . The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds . . . . 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. . . . Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.[2]

Who would not want “the clean sea breeze of the centuries” blowing through his mind? Who, having caught from the pages of old books a whiff of other, older ways of thinking, wafting across the seas of time from foreign shores, would be content to wrinkle her intellectual nose and retreat from the ocean? None but a dullard—or a snob.

The type of snobbery I’m talking about is “chronological snobbery”—the idea that newer ideas are always better.[3] They are not. Some of the developments of intellectual history have resulted from convincing arguments that pushed thought in certain directions—but (I suspect) by far the larger part of the developments came from the same sorts of socio-political forces that direct fashion in manners and clothing. Fashions in thought and morals are not necessarily improvements—and indeed the very fact that they are “fashionable” should give us pause. There is some danger that, as C. S. Lewis puts it, our preoccupation with a fashionable virtue—say, “tolerance”—will cause us to be “running about with fire extinguishers when[] there is a flood”—say, a flood of permissiveness.[4]

Don’t be a snob. Join me in reading old books—sympathetically and with an open mind. It is good medicine for the prejudices of our own age—and we will find that as gloriously different as former ages are, there remains always discernible “that human heart by which we live.”[5] We will find ourselves in full, albeit complicated, fellowship with our cultural ancestors.[6] It is our place to forgive them their characteristic errors as we would have ours be forgiven by our cultural descendants—and to receive correction from them as an adult child might receive it from a flawed but well-meaning parent.[7] From Aristotle to Zarathustra; from Gilgamesh to Gregory the Great—let us read one old book for every new one—or at least one for every three. And by “old” we mean at least a century old—preferably two or more.

Please comment if you are willing to join the book club of the ages. Feel free to leave suggestions of old books that have changed your life or impacted your thinking. My own suggestion is simply the last one I read: Rasselas, an excellent 18th century novella by Samuel Johnson that examines what sort of a life one should choose. It’s here on Amazon and it’s also free as an audiobook at librivox.org.

[1] “On the Reading of Old Books,” C. S. Lewis.

[2] Id.

[3] I take the term “chronological snobbery” from C. S. Lewis’s spiritual/intellectual autobiography, Surprised by Joy. Lewis was an atheist when a fellow member of the literati, Owen Barfield, tried to persuade him of Anthroposophism, a religious philosophy concerned with the objective examination of the spiritual realm. Lewis objected to Anthroposophism with an argument that amounts to this: “religion is outdated.”

Barfield never made me an Anthroposophist, but his counterattacks destroyed forever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my “chronological snobbery,” the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.

[4] Here is the full passage, from Screwtape Letters, a satirical book of letters that pretend to have been written by a high-ranking devil to one of his underling tempters. Screwtape extolls the inculcation of chronological snobbery in the tempter’s “patient.”

The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere “understanding”. Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritansm; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.

[5] The quote is from Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode.

[6] In his delightful book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton insists that the mere passage of history presents no insuperable obstacle to entering into the beliefs and belief-systems of earlier ages:

An imbecile habit has arisen in modern controversy of saying that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot be held in another. Some dogma, we are told, was credible in the twelfth century, but is not credible in the twentieth. You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays. You might as well say of a view of the cosmos that it was suitable to half-past three, but not suitable to half-past four. What a man can believe depends upon his philosophy, not upon the clock or the century.

[7] The idea that our cultural ancestors are analogous to flawed but well-meaning parents whose views and criticisms deserve to be taken seriously is perhaps best set out in another passage from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

But there is one thing that I have never from my youth up been able to understand. I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German historian against the tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance, is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the superiority of one expert against the awful authority of a mob. It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad. Those who urge against tradition that men in the past were ignorant may go and urge it at the Carlton Club, along with the statement that voters in the slums are ignorant. It will not do for us. If we attach great importance to the opinion of ordinary men in great unanimity when we are dealing with daily matters, there is no reason why we should disregard it when we are dealing with history or fable. Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross.

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10 thoughts on “An Invitation to Join The Book Club of the Ages.

  1. I’ll join! I just listened to Middlemarch, and really enjoyed it. It made me think about love, marriage, and profession in new ways.

  2. I just bought revelation on divine love by Julian of Norwich. Norwich isn’t too far from us (our stake center is there) and I read that this book has been and continues to be hugely influential. It was written in 1373 at a time when God was taught to be angry and she became quite ill and had a lot of time recovering and wrote her thoughts on a God who was personal and loving. Anyway–thought I’d share.

  3. This is a bit funny, but I just had the opposite realization. I realized I was always reading old books and that I needed to read some modern stories. So I checked out East West by Slaman Rushdie. But to the larger point, I will definitely continue to read old books. They’re often my favorite and have an heir of sincerity and humanity that is often lacking or at least heavily tempered in modern literature.

  4. I’m absolutely in! (This is your cousin Amber.) Crime and Punishment is the first that comes to mind, but Margaret already talked about that, so I’ll go with A Tale of Two Cities.

  5. I know it’s a popular classic but I want to read Les Miserable as well. I read it when I was younger and I think there’s more I could get out of it. Sign me up for the club. Is there a signup? Is there some kind of reward (coupons for Domino’s) for reading in this club or just personal enrichment and satisfaction? haha

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