My sons looked at me like I was from Mars. What’s so good about a boring sign like that? Eventually (after the 22-minute standing ovation settled down) I told my sons about Lou Gehrig’s immortal speech at Yankee Stadium when he said farewell to the crowd and the sport he loved. He had been diagnosed with ALS, the disease that now carries his name, and had to quit playing. Tearfully he told the crowd that even though he’d been given a bad break, “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
I appreciated the new 1995 sign, because I knew the old 1939 speech. The old informed the new. It did more than inform. It gave context. It filled out. It uplifted. It brought depth. C.S. Lewis noted that one reason to read old books is to help us appreciate new ones. In fact, it helps us understand discussions that have been transpiring for a very long time; as a result, we grasp deeper truths. Here’s how Lewis put it:
If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why — the reason, of course being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point.3
In addition to appreciating new books or recent discussions on a deeper level, Lewis offered several other reasons for reading old books. He felt that firsthand knowledge was better than secondhand knowledge. I don’t think he said this as a mere personal preference. We gain a depth of understanding hearing it from the first person (or one of the first) who promoted the idea. Thus, his prescription, quoted at the beginning of this article, “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.”
I must confess my ratio is nowhere near that. But I wish it more closely aligned with Lewis’s suggestion. When I have read old books (Augustine’s Confessions comes to mind), I have sensed a grasp on seminal ideas that I could see influencing many, many people in the history of the church. And I have seen how God used those ideas in forming my faith — even before I knew they came from Augustine or someone of his stature.
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