“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. Every age has its own outlook. It 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.”
– C.S. Lewis
This raises the question, how old does an “old book” have to be? World War II seems like a long time ago to me, and that’s when Lewis wrote, but I doubt that’s long enough. On the one hand, American culture has changed pretty significantly in the last 100 years, but I’m not sure it’s far enough away that it can really give us an outsider’s perspective on our own culture.
Another way to get that outsider’s look is to read old books by people from different cultures. I remember realizing this while reading “The Count of Monte Cristo,” a 150-year-old French novel. I was complete flabbergasted by the characters’ concept of honor and disgrace, specifically the things (like bankruptcy) that you could never live down, that would drive you to commit suicide or enter a nunnery. Or the cultural idea that it was acceptable, honorable in fact, to kill someone for insulting you. The point is, if French people of that time took their idea of honor for granted, what cultural ideas am I taking for granted that I should really re-think?
So what do you think, readers? Is Lewis right? How old is “old?” And does reading a book from a far-away country accomplish the same thing? (In case you hadn’t noticed, the theme of this quote is very similar to that from last week Monday’s Chesterton quote.)