C.S. Lewis on reading old books

Here’s more from C.S. Lewis on reading old books – this time highlighting their virtues as lenses for helping us to spot and evaluate the biases of our age:

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. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.


Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions.


We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books.Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill.


The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.


Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

C.S. LewisIntroduction to Athanasius’ On The Incarnation

See also:

Deep Literacy: what it takes
Kevin Kelly on deep literacy
Tyler Cowen on reading fast, reading widely and reading well
Neil Gaiman on reading fiction, empathy and changing the world
Books as network opportunities
Broker Books
Folk art and reading as rivals
Misreading the mind: Ezra Klein and Nicholas Carr on transactional reading and contemplation
C.S. Lewis on reading the originals

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...