Respect for Old Books

Opinion by Jim Denney

00-GodInTheDockI make my living writing brand-new books and putting them up for sale. So while the following quote from C. S. Lewis may not further my economic interests, I believe this is sound advice we all need to hear.

In 1943, Lewis wrote an essay called “On the Reading of Old Books.” Here’s an excerpt from that essay (you’ll find the entire piece in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics by C. S. Lewis):

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 books.

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. . . .

Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as to sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united — united with each other and against each other and later ages — by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century — the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” — lies where we have never suspected it. . . .

None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books.

In view of C. S. Lewis’s advice, I’ve made a list of 25 of my favorite books that are 50 years old or older. Most are novels, two are nonfiction (both deal with the Holocaust), and two are short story collections. I limited myself to a single work from each author (though I would have loved to include four or five titles each by Lewis and Bradbury). Here are my top 25 authors and books that are at least half a century old (aside from the books of the Bible, of course):

Edgar Allan Poe, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840)

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851)

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)

Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island (1883)

Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891)

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899)

00-HemingwayL. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)

Jack London, The Call of the Wild (1903)

E. Nesbit, The Story of the Amulet (1906)

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (1908)

Ernest Hemingway, The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (stories published between 1923 and 1957)

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1932)

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (1940)

Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl (1947)

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (1947)

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)

00-PerelandraC. S. Lewis, Perelandra (1943)

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1954/1955)

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)

Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time (1962)

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five (1969)

What are your favorite old books. What are the timeless classics you have reread again and again, and that you never tire of reading? You don’t have to list 25 — how about the top five or ten?

I look forward to hearing from you.

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2 Responses to Respect for Old Books

  1. Judy says:

    Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, books by George MacDonald, Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael, Man’s Search for Meaning. This one isn’t “old,” but I have read it several times, “Lone Survivor.”


  2. Thanks, Judy! All great choices.

    With 2019 around the corner, it would be a good idea for us all to commit to reading a few old books along with the new.

    When I was making my list, I originally included The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe from C. S. Lewis, but I changed it to Perelandra, because that is truly my favorite of all of Lewis’s novels, and I recently learned it was Lewis’s favorite, too. I read that Lewis was once walking with a friend when he spotted the planet Venus in the sky. He pointed and said, “Look! Perelandra!”

    Have a great new year, Judy. —J.D.


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