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C.S. Lewis On The Reading of Old Books — The Grow Network Community
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C.S. Lewis On The Reading of Old Books

Although this is a religiously oriented article, I think it would be insightful for anyone on any subject. Reading old books is not only more enjoyable than one might suppose if only taught by textbooks that teach about the original authors and their works, but is essential for really understanding much of anything beyond a surface level:

"There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.

The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator.

The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire."



  • shllnzlshllnzl Southwestern UtahPosts: 1,502 ✭✭✭✭✭

    If only I could get better at tolerating the "old English." My reading speed is severely reduced by the old dialects.

    Also, in past efforts, I have been unable to find a classic book that gave me the ability to "escape" into it. (I don't think J.R.R Tolkien is considered classic enough.)

  • Denise GrantDenise Grant Posts: 1,680 ✭✭✭✭✭

    I love CS Lewis.

    It took me a bit to get into the older classics and language but I can now pick up a classic and be transported in to another world.

    I still love the feel of paper between my fingers. I bond with books!

  • Annie KateAnnie Kate Eastern Ontario, CanadaPosts: 466 ✭✭✭✭

    And if you want to read a classic that is now rare, go to Gutenberg or Internet Archive. Here's one I have open right now, The Improvement of the Mind by Isaac Watts, author of the top logic text of the day (and for at least a century after) as well as hymn writer:

    Remember, in those days they often printed 'f' in place of 's'.

  • judsoncarroll4judsoncarroll4 Posts: 3,379 admin

    Yes, and the f/s thing made for a particularly hilarious episode of "The Vicar of Dibley"!

  • MaryRoweMaryRowe Posts: 412 ✭✭✭✭

    Before I retired, when I was still teaching university history, I always preferred using original sources to text books--you are just not going to find a history text book without at least a couple factual errors and more or less bias, but they are usually deathly boring as well. The original sources draw you directly into the time and place, and let you see it through the eyes of people living the experience. and get a much mire complete view of it. And that will always be true, while the text book will be outdated in a few years, or sometimes even by the time it is published! I'd say C.S. Lewis is pretty much on target about the other benefits as well.

    Students' reactions to my "all original sources" method could be mixed though. Most loved it, though there were always those who struggled with the old-fashioned language or convinced themselves they could not possibly figure out what was going on without a textbook telling them what the "facts" were and "pulling it all together" for them. But I am still convinced that original sources are generally the best place to start.

  • Annie KateAnnie Kate Eastern Ontario, CanadaPosts: 466 ✭✭✭✭

    So, @MaryRowe, what kind of history did you teach? I completely agree with you about original sources. The reason Isaac Watts was open was because I was rereading parts of it before giving ch 1 to my students to read with respect to Michael Faraday who taught himself using that book.

  • MaryRoweMaryRowe Posts: 412 ✭✭✭✭

    @Annie Kate It was a small department in a mid-sized regional university, so I covered many bases--we all taught the basic introduction to U.S. history, which all students are required to take. Original sources are important in that class to help teach students to think critically about what they read--they've pretty well been brainwashed to accept textbooks as gospel--and also to show them that the study of history is so much more than the rote memorizing of names and dates they probably had to do in high school.

    At the mid-level, I taught the Native American history class, and there original sources are critical to introduce the Native perspective. Here in Missouri, where it was literally illegal for Native people to live from the early 19th to the early 20th centuries, most students have never even met a Native person and have no concept of Native cultures and perspectives.

    Officially I was the "ancient history" person, and I taught advanced courses on ancient India, Greece and Rome. and as often as I could squeak it in, a course on my actual academic specialty, 5th-8th century Germania. Those subjects make the choice of texts tougher, because you have to deal with all the problems of translation, but I still think good translations of original texts beat the 3rd/4th-hand versions of history in text books for all the reasons we have been discussing. At that level though, students also need to begin learning the scholarly literature and how to read it. so I'd generally work in some of that, but always as a foil to the original texts.

  • Denise GrantDenise Grant Posts: 1,680 ✭✭✭✭✭

    I love history, not so much in high school. They taught it wrong.

    But now its an adventure to learn from the past and even what we live.

    I have Native American in my southern family but its hard to dig out. Back then if you had one drop of Native American blood you could not own land so they hid it as well as they could just to survive.

  • aprilbbrinkmanaprilbbrinkman Posts: 243 ✭✭✭

    @Denise Grant Yes, go to the source, otherwise it is gossip. @MaryRowe I taught at university too and find the best scholars to read are the ones with some kind of first-hand knowledge to offer of what it is they're talking about. @judsoncarroll4 may I use this as an opportunity to plug Ten Acres Enough by Edmund Morris. I do consider this an "old" book in some respects. It is also incredibly alive and relevant today at so many levels. Perhaps because it is a first-hand love story of a dedicated husband to his wife. I would not have known about this book if not for TGN and it is like Ed and his wife are now friends. I want to invite them over to my dinner to meet my family, truly. One of my list for some kind of future séance.

  • Megan VenturellaMegan Venturella Posts: 399 ✭✭✭✭

    @aprilbbrinkman I love that book! It could have been written this year!

  • aprilbbrinkmanaprilbbrinkman Posts: 243 ✭✭✭

    @Megan Venturella it is like stepping into a time machine where you are supposed to go back in time, but end up going to the future in that this family the Morris's end up being smarter about living on their land and wiser than most are today.

  • kbmbillups1kbmbillups1 Posts: 495 ✭✭✭✭

    I love CS Lewis. We used his book Mere Christianity as a bible study last year. It was very interesting. We all had different versions that were printed at different times. The only issue we had was with being able to call our page numbers! We did use a companion book that had us number the paragraphs in CS Lewis' book which was a great way of keeping track of where we were.

  • happy-trailshappy-trails Posts: 157 ✭✭✭

    Such wisdom! It makes complete sense to experience literature directly from the source, rather than second-hand... an overabundance of commentary and scarcity of original text! I do appreciate some modern commentary and discussion though, in addition to the original text. I like to hear interesting perspectives and thoughts, theories etc. of others. We've just been so institutionalized in the education system to think that we NEED a modern day author to explain the original works to our little inferior minds... haha 😄

  • Annie KateAnnie Kate Eastern Ontario, CanadaPosts: 466 ✭✭✭✭

    Thanks, @MaryRowe! I totally agree with that point of view. Original sources are vital to careful learning and thought in history, and they give many points of view that don't make it into textbooks. They are often a lot more interesting, too. I often find, though, that a text or overview of some sort helps to give a time/place framework to organize the original sources. As a historian, I suppose you did that for your students as you went along.

    And I had no idea that Native people were outlawed from Missouri for a century!

  • Annie KateAnnie Kate Eastern Ontario, CanadaPosts: 466 ✭✭✭✭

    Thank you for the book recommendation @aprilbbrinkman and @Megan Venturella .

  • jolanta.wittibjolanta.wittib Posts: 429 ✭✭✭✭

    @judsoncarroll4 @MaryRowe @happy-trails @aprilbbrinkman I love this discussion and agree that reading old books is like travelling in time. You find so much information about how people used to live and think at that time. One does not have to agree or disagree. And, when I think of old books on herbs and all the forgotten wisdom... OK one can say, that the science proves it this or that way, but there is so much wisdom which is historically proved and science, sometimes finds out much later what has been known ages ago. It is worth reading old books.

  • judsoncarroll4judsoncarroll4 Posts: 3,379 admin

    I agree. I don't think anything proven in a laboratory is more valid than the collective wisdom of humanity through generations of real world experience.

  • aprilbbrinkmanaprilbbrinkman Posts: 243 ✭✭✭

    @Annie Kate please know that Edmund although we never get to know the name of his wife, which I find a tad romantic--yes I'm old fashioned, or maybe new fashioned...hard to tell these days--anyhow, his eldest daughter is named Kate. I just love this family. Have fun reading!

  • VermontCathyVermontCathy Posts: 522 ✭✭✭✭

    Books by early historians like Herodotus (_Persian Wars_)and Thucydides (_History of the Peloponnesian War_) are fun to read and have a much less stuffed-shirt air than modern professional works that are really written for professionals by other professionals.

    Julius Caesar was also a good writer as well as a great general. His book _Gallic War_ is another entertaining, informative look at another time and place.

    An alternate approach was taken by writers like Allan Eckert, who write a definitive series on early American conflicts between the incoming settlers and the First Nations (Indians). He quotes extensively from his sources, and does his best to stick very close to those sources even when writing in narrative format. There are a few places where he gets it wrong, such as his erroneous acceptance of the myth that Red Jacket was a white man who joined the Seneca, rather than a native-born Seneca. (DNA evidence has settled this beyond a doubt, but Eckert didn't have that information at the time he wrote the book.) But I still highly recommend his series (The Frontiersmen, _Wilderness Empire_, _Wilderness War_, etc.)

    Religious works like _The Imitation of Christ_ by Thomas Kempis are just as relevant and readable today as when they were orginally written, around 1400.

    Don't be afraid to read a translation of an original work. You don't need to read the original language to get a lot out of it.

  • happy-trailshappy-trails Posts: 157 ✭✭✭


    Very well put! I agree whole-heartedly!

  • stephanie447stephanie447 Ayurvedic Practitioner Annapolis, MDPosts: 298 ✭✭✭

    The classical texts in Ayurveda are still studied and used today, some thousands of years old.

  • monica197monica197 Posts: 719 ✭✭✭✭

    I am enjoying 'All Things Bright and Beautiful' right now - not quite as old as Plato but it has been around a while. It is entertaining and makes me laugh out loud every now and then.

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