How to Read Old Books, According to C. S. Lewis

By Gabriel Blanchard

It's not enough just to read old books - we should study their contexts as well.

Most people will recognize C.S. Lewis from his beloved fiction series, The Chronicles of Narnia, or perhaps his theological writings like Mere Christianity. But did you know that he was also a renowned scholar of English literature and language? He taught at both Oxford and Cambridge and wrote a multitude of books and essays to help readers appreciate classic works of literature.

In an essay fittingly titled ‘On the Reading of Old Books,’ he explains why he values this work so highly:

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. … Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

Because old works provide this healthy corrective to our own period, a great deal of C. S. Lewis’ professional work is devoted to explaining just what old authors thought, why they thought it, and how they expressed it.

"We all need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books."

Everything from grand movements in religion, politics, and art, down to the small details like the archaic definitions of words, is relevant to an author’s work. Our own personal experiences, the cultural context we live in, even the changing definitions of words – these can make it difficult to find an author’s meaning in the thicket of our own assumptions. C.S. Lewis wanted to clarify the authors’ cultural contexts and help modern readers avoid the trap of misconstruing the meaning and intent of old authors.

With this in mind, here are just a few of C. S. Lewis’ professional works that are particularly helpful for becoming a “wise reader” – one who can truly understand what an old author intends to teach us.

The Discarded Image
This is Lewis’ comprehensive introduction to the worldview shared by educated people throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and right down to the end of the seventeenth century. This prepares us for authors as diverse as Aquinas, Dante, Chaucer, Calvin, and Shakespeare.

A Preface to ‘Paradise Lost.’
This book introduces the reader to epics in general, and then focuses in on Paradise Lost in its structure, technique, themes, and theology. Lewis’ chapter on the importance of hierarchy in pre-Modern thought is especially illuminating.

Studies in Words
This explores a small number of highly important words in English, and the ways and reasons they have changed their meanings over time, along with parallel developments in Latin and Greek. Words like kind and wit and world show surprisingly complex histories and meanings, and bring out subtleties in many books even as recent as the nineteenth century.

The essays ‘The Funeral of a Great Myth,’ ‘Historicism,’ and ‘Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism’ in the anthology The Seeing Eye.
Each of these three essays deal with shifts in accepted thought between earlier ages and his own, in slightly different subjects: popular imagination and literature, history, and Christian belief.

As our culture changes more and more rapidly, it’s easy to feel that authors from bygone ages are becoming completely inaccessible. C.S. Lewis’ work helps to assure us that, though it can be challenging to reach them, it can–and should–be done.

Published on 3rd August, 2019.

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