On the Reading of Old Books

cslewiswritingatdeskC. S. Lewis has a wonderful piece written as an introduction to a translation of Athanasius’s “On the Incarnation” that is often referred to as “On the Reading of Old Books”.  In it, he argues for the importance of listening to the voices of the past that have made their way to us via the medium of print if we are to have anything approaching a sound perspective on the present.  His point of view needs to be trumpeted again to today’s young (and old) adults, for it seems to me that we are living in an era in which the voices of the past are almost drowned out beyond hope of hearing by the cacophony of the voices of the present (many of which have a particular distaste for the same voices of the past).

When we fail to seek a solid acquaintance with these voices of the past, Lewis argues, we stand the risk of being unable to understand ourselves well – and to see weaknesses in our thinking or in our society.  I think he’s exactly right… and the trend I see today regarding the willingness to consider points of view that are separated from us by distances measured in time rather than space is not a positive one for our society.  If we live insulated from those voices, we are prone to greater and greater degrees of blindness about our ways of thinking about each other, about God and about the world.  We become more and more easily convinced that we have risen to the pinnacle of understanding, and that our worldview lacks any shortcomings or flaws. We think so highly of ourselves that we are liable to regard anything coming down to us from prior generations as useless or irrelevant – because we have progressed so far, and because “life just looks different today”.  We become completely unable to hear anything that doesn’t fit our own preconceived notions of what is right, just and important.

Every year I have students in class who struggle with the idea of reading anything older than they are.  This is by no means the NORM among my students, but every year a couple of them have a readily observable ambivalence about reading works that are very old at all, and argue that, because those books are old, the authors really can’t have much to say to them and certainly have no good ideas that can practically be applied to their lives.    These same students often raise the concern in the other direction – that they “just can’t relate to the author’s point of view”.   This latter concept is intimately connected to the former, but I find myself much more sympathetic to it – because I do believe it’s probably quite true, given the literary diet that the students have likely consumed for most of their lives, and at least some of the responsibility for that lies in people other than the students themselves.

That said, it can be a struggle to open the eyes of those who are (in varying degrees) willingly keeping them shut.  But, as Lewis writes in his essay, this is the job of the teacher… if only most teachers today understood this to be their job, and weren’t hampered by ridiculous ‘outcome-based’ educational standards that scuttle every effort to truly educate the student.