C.S. Lewis offered one of his keen insights into literature when he wrote: “The more ‘up to date’ the book is, the sooner it will be dated.” (Letters to Malcolm)
The racks of clearance titles at bookstores provide ample evidence of that truth. It’s particularly evident with nonfiction works dealing with technology. Their shelf life can be counted in months (if they are fortunate).
But the short lifespan of modern writing is not restricted to science-driven topics. It also relates to the literary “fads” that come and go like mists dispelled by the afternoon sun.
There appears to be a direct correlation between touting the modernity or timeliness of a book and it imminent obsolescence. Many readers of Mere Inkling vividly recall the deluge of books warning about the dangers posed by Y2K. The new millennium was guaranteed—in the eyes of publishers milking the rare event—to bring momentous change, perhaps including catastrophic disasters.
When that crisis failed to materialize, there was a slightly less voluminous—but equally ominous—discussion of the threat of Armageddon heralded by the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012. It was newsworthy enough that NASA posted this message the day after “doomsday.”
News flash: the world didn’t end on Dec. 21, 2012. You’ve probably already figured that out for yourself. Despite reports of an ancient Maya prophecy, a mysterious planet on a collision course with Earth, or a reverse in Earth’s rotation, we’re still here.
The Mayan connection “was a misconception from the very beginning,” says Dr. John Carlson, director of the Center for Archaeoastronomy. “The Maya calendar did not end on Dec. 21, 2012, and there were no Maya prophecies foretelling the end of the world on that date.”*
It is unfair, though, to single out time sensitive publications as doomed to pass quickly into the recycling bin. After all, it wasn’t technological or calendar-focused texts Lewis was referring to.
What Lewis was critiquing is books that consciously attempt to catch the latest wave of popularity . . . without recognizing that only a small fraction of such movements are of lasting value.
He despised books that lacked substance and were utterly transient in their “value.”
Lewis knew from personal experience about the varying quality and potential lifespan of books. The following passage from his autobiography describes vividly how in his childhood he was exposed to books of all sorts, even though some had been purchased only because of his parents’ “transient” interests.
I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles.
Also, of endless books. My father bought all the books he read and never got rid of any of them. There were books in the study, books in the drawing room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents’ interest, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not.
Nothing was forbidden me. In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves. I had always the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks into a field has of finding a new blade of grass. (Surprised by Joy)
Lewis believed that any good book was worth rereading. As a relatively young man he wrote in 1916, “You really lose a lot by never reading books again.” Sixteen years later he would write to Arthur Greeves once again and say, “I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.” And, without belaboring the subject, in 1933 he would once again voice this conviction to his lifelong friend. “Clearly one must read every good book at least once every ten years.”
The “good books,” of course, were those that had proven themselves over the passage of time. They were polar opposites to the shallow, insipid writing Lewis derided.
In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis elaborates on this notion. He argues that no truly worthwhile text can be fully digested in a single reading.
The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers “I’ve read it already” to be a conclusive argument against reading a work. . . . Those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life.
It is honest to acknowledge that a book only recently published is not inherently of lesser value than something that has remained of sufficient value to have been preserved over the centuries. After all, every book was at one time new.
Lewis offers a persuasive rationale for his position reading outside one’s own historical context is beneficial.
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. (“On the Reading of Old Books”)
It should be noted that Lewis did offer an exception to his rule about revisiting texts. He regarded it as feasible that a volume of facts or “information” could be processed in one reading.
No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty—except, of course, books of information. The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all. (“On Stories”)
Lewis could exclude “books of information” from requiring rereading due to his prodigious memory which made that unnecessary. Lesser minds, such as that of the writer of this column, often benefit from returning to even these books.
Lewis, however, was absolutely convinced that the classics (using the term in a broad sense) were vital to developing the mind. He even proposed a specific ratio for one’s literary consumption.
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. (“On the Reading of Old Books”)
One reason for alternating one’s reading is to ensure we don’t ingest too much mental “junk food.” After all, as Lewis writes in “Learning in War-Time,”
You are not, in fact, going to read nothing . . . if you don’t read good books you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally.
The Classics as Curricula
Recent years have witnessed a revival of interest in reading what Lewis called “old books,” as the essential foundation for an excellent education. He would certainly have applauded this movement.
Numerous American colleges and universities offer Great Books programs. The Association for Core Texts and Courses tracks them here.
One Roman Catholic university describes theirs in this way:
Our students immerse themselves in the Great Books (the Western Canon), the Good Book (the Bible), and God’s “First Book” (nature)—all of which we consider necessary for a true liberal education. Our humanities curriculum starts our freshmen off in Homeric Greece and brings our seniors through modernity and postmodernity. In a time of cultural amnesia, this deep study in the sweep of Western literature, history, politics, and philosophy cultivates the intellect and the heart.**
The Great Books Foundation is an organization established to provide resources for younger students. It’s never too early, supporters believe, to undertake this approach to grounding one’s education.
The C.S. Lewis Society, which operates the Study Center at the Kilns where Lewis resided, has been attempting to fund C.S. Lewis College in the States. They have a grand dream, inspired by the worldview of their namesake. “C.S. Lewis College will be a college of the Great Books and the Visual and Performing Arts.”
God-willing, in the future, more and more enlightened readers, taught from their youth to value quality literature, will echo Lewis’ words, saying, I too “am a product . . . of endless books.”
* The full article is here and offers an interesting insight in to Mayan religion. According to Carlson,
“If we could time warp a Maya to the present day, they would say that Dec. 21, 2012, is a very important date. Many Maya believed that their gods who created the world 5125 years ago would return. One of them in particular, an enigmatic deity named Bolon Yokte’ K’uh, would conduct old rites of passage, to set space and time in order, and to regenerate the cosmos.” The world would be refreshed, not destroyed.
** “Mother Church or Uncle Sam” by Kevin Roberts (unfortunately not available in full online).
5 thoughts on “One Weakness of Modern Books”
But then again, there are always the words of Samuel Johnson: “Some seem to admire indiscriminately whatever has been long preserved, without considering that time has sometimes cooperated with chance; all perhaps are more willing to hone past than present excellence…”
You’ve given me a lot, as a reader, to chew on and consider. I wonder how it might change our readings of blogs if we had the time to return to older posts, rereading those which changed our perspectives every so often.
Great quote from Johnson. An excellent reminder is that all that is old is not gold.
There are some ancient writers whose serious and highly praised works have been lost to us. Meanwhile some of the minor things they wrote, like on vegetable gardens, have survived. The accidents of preservation…
I am intrigued as well by the way that a person’s literary heritage is assessed by those alive when they pass. It’s common for people who are favored by their own era to not write with a timelessness that makes their work resonate for the people in the future. They are destined to be forgotten in a generation, even if the internet allows their writings to remain available.
On the other hand, people like Lewis and Johnson speak timeless wisdom.
Yes, reading is so important. I am in my class attempting to get my teenagers reading and living it. It is a hard battle but I am trying to get them to begin writing as well.
I appreciate all you post that is timeless.
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