Old books

From C.S. Lewis’ introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, addressing whether readers should read old books or modern ones:

Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if 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. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. 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. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. 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.

I started another “old book” this morning, called Mothers of the Wise and Good, by Jabez Burns. I suppose in the grand scheme of all that has been written in human history, it’s really not that old…it was originally published in 1848. It is a collection of vignettes about mothers and motherhood. The first half is comprised of portraits of the mothers of those we know to be “wise and good”; people such as Augustine, Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Johnson, John Newton, and George Washington. The second half of the book is a collection of poetry and essays on the “Discharge of Maternal Duties.” I hope to spread this book out over the coming year, reading a bit every week and meditating on the woman I meet each week.

This morning’s portrait was one of Augustine’s mother, Monica. She was the primary teacher in Augustine’s life and provided him with an excellent example of piety; however, early in his life he was influenced by friends and fell away from the faith. Monica continued to labor faithfully in prayer with many tears for him over the next decade, and when he was thirty, he was finally converted. As they spoke together after his conversion, she said, “What do I here? [that is, Earth] One thing only — your conversion — was an object for which I wished to live. My God has given me this in greater measure: what do I here?”. Five days later, she fell into a fever of which she died. She is an excellent example to me of a mother who sowed in tears but reaped in joy (Ps. 126:5).

2 Responses to “Old books”

  1. Beth

    Thanks for sharing about this book, Kelly. I was intrigued when you mentioned it in your comment earlier. I’ll look forward to your weekly installments and the encouragement from these faithful mothers of the past.


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