Reading Widely: why should we read old books?

A 1688 edition of Paradise Lost by John Milton

We have come, once again, to the time of year where many share their favorite books of 2021. I always enjoy perusing these lists, especially if they are not lists at all, but a nice picture of a good stack of books. Heavenly. Good pastors are sort of bookish people, and also tend to be somewhat self-congratulatory, which is why most of these lists/posts I speak of are distributed by various clergy I follow on social media. It is extremely predictable.

I love when people post about books. I’m here for it. I enjoy people telling me what they’re reading and if they liked it, which makes for this time of year to be quite the education in what people — especially pastors — are reading. It’s a great time of year.

But this year, a strange curiosity started as I have been looking at what we’re all reading. As I saw post after post, I started to realize how few books people were reading that were, well, old. All the more interesting to me, is how many people are reading books published in the last four years. The vast majority of people telling me what they’re reading online are those who are reading books that were published quite recently.

This is especially true of pastors. Many pastors this year enjoyed the latest from business management experts, popular Christian writers, racial justice contemporaries, and novelists. A lot of it looked good, but it definitely got me thinking: This is not to mention another essential question:

The value of this was emphasized when my friend A.J. Swoboda (who, himself, is a fantastic contemporary writer) told me that the scholar Thomas Oden once remarked that he tries mostly to read people who have been dead for 400 years. It struck me as an interesting way to pursue reading, and also a convicting question:

There are many reasons, however, to read old books, even if most of these reasons are flawed. New books are in our vernacular, with references and slang that are easy to understand. The latest books are also marketed to us — to be . The design, layout, even the titles grab our attention far more than older ones (Yes, or sounds much more our speed than ). We also believe (whether implicitly or explicitly) that new books have the latest information, which, in our minds, is the best (this is often not true). We actually assume incorrectly that any new book published was written by people who have properly digested the past. We are wrong about nearly all of this.

C.S. Lewis coined the term “chronological snobbery,” which is the phrase used for this feeling (and a phrase with its own Wikipedia page): that there’s very little value in the ancient writings. If someone is writing prior to the Enlightenment, we take it with a grain of salt (in fact, named it “the Enlightenment” for a reason, to contrast this time from “The Dark Ages” of the Medieval era, which believed to be “Dark,” even though it produced some of the greatest theology and philosophy ever written). We have chronological bias that says, “if the author did not understand empiricism and the scientific method, or modern gender dynamics, or if they did not have access to contemporary technology…I’m not sure they’ll have much good to say,” even if the author is writing about woodworking. We deem “old” as bad and “new” as good, but this cannot guide a good reading life, let alone a good life.

Christians should lead the way in reading old books because we spend nearly every day reading ancient documents as we navigate our way through the library that is our Holy Scripture. Isaiah certainly had no grasp of gravitational theory or quantum physics. St. Mark did not understand Kantian ethics. Moses had no grasp on the behavioral sciences. None of the biblical writers went to counseling and they do not understand contemporary therapeutic language. And yet, for Christians, these writers, filled with the Holy Spirit, guide us and shape our imaginations about life every day.

Which is why followers of Jesus should have no problem stepping in to the literature that directly followed the New Testament, the patristic writers like Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, St. Basil, or Maximus the Confessor. And that should lead us into the likes of Anselm or Aquinas or Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross. If you can read the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, you can read Augustine’s (especially Sarah Ruden’s new, highly-readable translation).

Why read the ancients? Precisely because they come from another time, they come from another culture — or another version of our culture. We talk all the time about reading a “diverse” reading list, but this is usually manifested by a diverse reading list. That’s a fine place to start, but a sad place to end. You can read people of all tribes and tongues, but if they were all published within the same decade, you’ll only be getting a spoon full of the current zeitgeist. Reading Frederick Douglass is a different experience than reading James Baldwin, which is a different experience than reading Hanif Abdurraqib. Even though each of these writers are black and have written profoundly on the black experience in America, they all come from vastly different ages and are therefore unique in their own right. They offer different things to us. “Diversity” (to us) is mostly about race, gender, and geographic location, but one location is the author’s location is time. Chronological diversity is rarely mentioned in contemporary discussions of reading.

Because older books come from a different time, they are refreshingly honest in their unknowing assessments of our culture. I often have this experience reading the patristics (the Church Fathers). They wrote between the years 100–500 A.D., and they have no cultural hesitancies obvious to us. This means they are clumsy one moment (reading Aristotle’s thoughts on biology can be rough!) and downright offensive at another (beware of reading Augustine’s opinion on women!), but they explore spaces modern authors cannot, due to our own, necessary cultural taboos. We stay far away from places they enjoy exploring. This allows the writers to discover holes in our own thinking that we do not know about because we simply do not speak of it (we couldn’t, because if we did, we would not be published or read). It’s wild the kind of metaphysics you can come up with when you don’t even understand physics. It’s freeing, actually (read Gregory of Nyssa).

Finally, reading old books helps you see that very few problems are new, and some of them have actually been solved. Trudging through will help you see how some of the best thinking around theodicy (how could a good God allow suffering?) has already been done by a North African in the fourth century. Taking time to read just a little bit of Thomas Cranmer alongside Thomas Watson will help clarify a lot of eucharist debates happening between protestants. Reading Tertullian should also help. It is refreshing to read old books to see that some problems won’t go away and some of the best answers have already been given.

There are two ways to go about reading older books: you can move backwards from where you are or start all the way back and move forward — I think both are valuable. Moving backwards can take more legwork, but once you read a contemporary writer who quote Bonhoeffer, you might go actually read Bonhoeffer (he was born in 1906!). When you read Bonhoeffer, you will see him quote Barth…and then read Barth (he was born in 1886!), who will lead you to Kierkegaard (born in 1813!), and so on. Each step might get increasingly more difficult, but your brain will grow as you step further and further back. That can work!

But you can also go way back to the Patristics right away and start from the beginning of Christian writing, nearly 2,000 years ago. I think it’s a smooth transition to move from Peter and James and John’s writings to someone like Athanasius or Irenaeus. The “Popular Patristics Series” from our Orthodox friends at St. Vladimir’s Press are small, readable translations that can get you going. And the website is a storehouse of free, accessible patristic writing—like a Wikipedia for ancient theology. Not always the best translations, but it’s all free and accurate stuff.

No matter what, if you’ve made it to the end of this post, I would encourage all of you to read at least three works (small books, a sermon, or an essay) written by people who were born the year 1900. Go to their world, listen to their voice, hear their arguments and concerns. It will take longer and involve more a bit more brain work, but I guarantee your mind will develop in positive ways and at a greater capacity than if you read the latest Christian bestseller. After all, who knows if that contemporary writer will last as long as the stuff I’ve mentioned in this post? To be “classic” is to have stood the test of time like Dostoevsky or Teresa of Avila or Jane Austen or Ignatius of Antioch. Older books have stood a test of many years. It’s comforting to know that, even if its a difficult read, it’s at least one that has lasted.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Chris Nye

Living in Portland, Oregon with my wife and son. Doctoral candidate at Duke University. Author of a few books: chrisnye.co/books