Old Books and New Books

In God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, C.S. Lewis writes a chapter called On the Reading of Old Books. He makes a great point that I would like to share with you.

Lewis writes that too often today’s readers are too intimidated to read someone like Plato, so they prefer to read a book written about Plato instead. But there is a problem with this. If you utilize this method of learning about Plato, all you are basically getting is someone’s interpretation of Plato, with maybe 1 in 10 pages containing actually passages from Plato’s writing.

Besides that, you are getting a piece of the dialogue about Plato that is quite far along from the original, and thus are missing a lot of what has happened in between. It’s kind of like entering into a conversation at 11:00 that started at 8:00 – you’ve missed most of what’s been said in the meantime.

Thirdly, Lewis says that really Plato himself is a lot easier to understand than all those academic interpretations of him. So he suggests going to the source. Not that the later scholarship is irrelevant, but it often does miss the point, and so you should go to the original first.

Lewis goes on to say, “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.” He says that doing this will keep your view of the controversies surrounding things in perspective, as you balance your readings of the originals and the newer stuff.

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