Read an old one in between

“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.)

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4 responses

  1. I consider an old book anything that’s more than 50 or so years old and still respected/enjoyed/considered to have merit.

    Most of today’s “gotta-have” books will be irrelevant and passe a couple decades from now. The truly good ones will still be around.

  2. I tend to do that with genres of books. Fluff books followed by theology followed by mystery followed by manga followed by biography followed by classic followed by…oh, the sky’s the limit. I haven’t put concerted effort into alternating my eras, but then I was the girl reading *Anna Karenina* at 16 for our library summer reading program just so I could write it up that I read *Anna Karenina*. I’m not afraid of older books.

    I do think variety is good in reading. What’s the point in reading if you just stay stuck in your own corner of the world and learn noting about other times, places, or situations? I just finished a book called *Castaway Kid*, an autobiography of somebody about our dad’s age who grew up in this country but with a totally different experience of life than we did. That was a broadening book.

    So I agree with Lewis’ sentiment, even though I don’t follow any specific formula.

  3. Old is anything older than me. If not, them I’M old. And I’m not buying that. Yet.

  4. Renee, I’d say that “old” is at least 50 years older than you, so don’t worry.

    Suzanne, I try to do the same, although I sometimes have to make myself stop reading fun fiction, since that’s my favorite, and the easiest way to relax.

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