Thursday, January 27, 2011

Reading old books

Skye Jethani explains why he reads dead people:
People ask me all the time, “Who do you read?” In most cases they’re looking for book recommendations. (Some people, particularly Calvinistas, are trying to determine if I’m safe--are my ideas and my theology grounded in what they see as credible sources.) But my answer usually surprises them: “I read dead people.” ....

.... If someone has been dead for a while and his book is still in print and widely read, then it’s probably worth reading. And, if we’re honest, there are precious few books written by Christian authors today that will still be read in 24 months, let alone 24 years. I want to use my reading time to immerse myself in powerfully formative material, and not just flash-in-the-pan trends. Does this mean I never read living authors? No, of course not. But if they’re not dead, I like them to be pretty close. I can usually trust that they’re not going to waste what time they have left on this earth writing sappy Hallmark card sentimental Evangelical fluff. ....
Jethani quotes from an interview with author Steve Samples:
Of the hundreds of thousands of things that men and women have written 400 years ago or before, only about 25 to 50 are widely read today. So there's something very special about these 25 to 50 texts. They influence everything that is written and spoken in our society to an unprecedented degree.

You can usefully spend your time reading any of the supertexts, even over and over again, because they probably tell us more about human nature than anything else we have at our disposal. But for books that are not the supertexts, I think a person has to be very, very selective.
Earlier, C.S. Lewis [a dead person very much worth reading] made much the same point:
...[I]f he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. .... The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity ("mere Christianity" as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. 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. .... [more]
I Read Dead People | Out of Ur | Conversations for Ministry Leaders, JOLLYBLOGGER: C. S. Lewis on the Reading of Old Books