Sunday, January 16, 2011

C.S. Lewis's Rule for Reading

"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," he said, in order, says Chris Sullivan, "to avoid becoming conditioned exclusively by your own time" — Old Books. "If that is too much for you," he continued, "you should at least read one old one for every three new ones."

G. K. Chesterton took it even further: "The Catholic Church is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age."

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Blogger Enbrethiliel said...


This would be an interesting exercise! Earlier this week, dozens of book bloggers were posting lists of "reading resolutions" which were mostly about getting one's reading done. C.S. Lewis' "resolution" is more about making sure your reading doesn't "do" you. Or rather, since one's reading always has an impact, to make sure that one is "done" by more than modern factors.

But now the essential question:

How old is old???

5:48 PM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Well said about reading "doing" us.

My rule of thumb is that anything that's stood the test of time for 50 years is old.

11:13 PM  
Blogger Enbrethiliel said...


And I've just noticed the irony that all the books that were new during Lewis' time are now old! =P

But that reflection helps me get his point that, in an ideal world, the best books of all past ages would be as familiar to us as the best books of our own age. There is awfully degrading slavery in being a reader of one's age--and one need look no further than the book blogosphere to see that. There, more posts are written on new releases and future releases than on older books--and by "older," I mean stuff from the 80s and 90s. (LOL!!!) It's a fun, colourful playground for a reader . . . but sometimes--and maybe more often--one would like some real weight.

11:46 PM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

The thing is, we cannot know what are the best books of our age until half a century or so has passed.

I started reading Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy today, which, after 1500 years is still in print. I doubt the same will be true of Bill Clinton's My Life.

12:18 AM  
Blogger love the girls said...

I often think back to C.S. Lewis' introduction to Athanasius on the Incarnation of Christ for the same reason.

Of which this is my favorite part:

"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."

1:14 AM  
Blogger Enbrethiliel said...


Joshua, that is so true! Clinton was a world leader, but there is something of his book which belongs to the new "genre" of celebrity biographies--one which, had Francis Bacon only known about it, would have made him add a fourth category to his famous three types of books: the books which should be merely tasted, the books which should be efficiently swallowed, the books which should be properly chewed . . . and the books which should be immediately spit out!

(On the other hand, movies seem to become classics faster. It only takes about ten years for the really good movies to prove that they deserve to be watched by later generations.)

1:28 AM  
Blogger M.Z. said...

I have found myself reading 30-plus-year-old textbooks at the library over the newly minted ones I'm compelled to purchase. The problem isn't so much that there aren't good textbooks made today - there are - they problem is that there are so many bad ones.

9:27 AM  
Blogger Enbrethiliel said...


MZ: The same could be said about books in any popular genre today. Still a lot of great/good ones--but good luck finding them in an ocean of bad to mediocre ones!

11:04 PM  

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