3 ways to keep you reading old books

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

“Of making many books there is no end,” the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us. If this was true three thousand years ago, how much more true is it today when, in America alone, more than 900 books are released every day.1

Call me crazy, but that seems a bit… insane.

Now clearly, not all of these books is meant to be read by everyone, which would be impossible even for über-reader Albert Mohler!

So how do Christians keep up—and how do we make sure the really great books of the past aren’t left behind?

Here are three suggestions to add and keep classic works in your reading diet:

1. Follow the footnotes. If you’re reading a lot of newer books, pay attention to the footnotes and/or endnotes. Start reading the sources read by your modern favorites. For example, if you’ve benefitted from books by someone like Tullian Tchividjian (say Jesus + Nothing = Everything), you can step back a few decades and read Justification by Faith: A Matter of Death and Life by Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde. Or read Martin Lloyd-Jones and go back and read Puritans like Richard Sibbes. Or if you read John Piper, read Jonathan Edwards, and so on.

The point is simple: Start with the influences of your influences and work your way back. This will give you a healthy starting point for reading older books.

2. Rotate your 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,” C.S. Lewis wrote. “If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”2 This is good advice, and we should take it seriously.

While I wouldn’t necessarily advocate for the specific numbers Lewis suggests (although I’m not against them by any means), the point is this: don’t just fill your head with new books. I try to read at least one older book for every three to four new, but this can vary depending on circumstances. Because I review books, there’s a greater sense of urgency with newer material that I have to fight against. It’s not possible to read all the new books I want to read, so my goal is to have a healthy intake of new and old.

3. Watch the times and pay attention. Many new books are very good and very helpful, but few have a lasting sense of importance. They’re so grounded in a particular time and context that they’ll be incomprehensible within five to ten years (although I love the book, The Explicit Gospel is one of these).

Where older books have a great deal of strength, though, is showing us how unoriginal theological error really is, as well as the timelessness of the truth.

When J.C. Ryle writes on the Saducees, for example, he writes from his 19th century context—but his point is equally applicable today in the 21st. He describes a kind of person, patterns of behavior, but his language isn’t so tied to this context that we can’t make heads or tails of it. Or consider a more recent example in J.I. Packer and his book, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God. There he writes a scathing rebuke to the liberal movement of his day that, if you were to change the locations mentioned, would perfectly describe the climate of North American Christianity today.

Older books remind us that as bad as things seem right now, we’ve been through them all before and the gospel always prevails in the end.

What would you add to this list? How do you balance a healthy reading diet?

Show 2 footnotes

  1. According to one source, 347,178 new titles and editions were published in 2011.
  2. C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, p. 201

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  • http://twitter.com/domwth Becky Pliego

    Love this, Aaron.

    I always try to incorporate old books to my reading pile, and when I don’t do that for a while, I miss them. Reading an old book is at times like going to that very special restaurant that serve only the finest dishes, don’t you think?

  • http://asmallwork.wordpress.com/ Ryan Higginbottom

    Aaron, thanks for writing this! I really appreciate your thoughts!

    It may sound too easy, but I find planning to be the best antidote to a new-book overdose. At the beginning of each year, I try to make a modest list of the books I’d like to read that year, and I make sure to include some books from specific categories (biography, humor, fiction, etc.). As I’m doing this, I try to consciously include several old books. During the course of the year, the reading list changes (for what I hope are good reasons!), but if I don’t plan, I fear I’ll never read old books—simply because bloggers rarely write about them and others in the church (on the whole) rarely read them!

    Thanks again!

  • http://asmallwork.wordpress.com/ Ryan Higginbottom

    Aaron — one more reading-diet related question for you. Do you have a practice of re-reading books? I think some people (myself included) see the number of books that uber-readers like Mohler (or even you!) consume each year, and there’s a tendency to push for a large volume of books to read. But I’ve recently found a few books (the Discipline of Grace by Jerry Bridges, to name one) that I think I’d really benefit from reading multiple times. I don’t want that realization to get swept away in the tide of new books though.

    Do you incorporate “recycling” into your reading diet? If so, how?

    Thanks again!

  • ImAllBooked

    Great ideas for helping readers get into older works. I am troubled when I meet Christians who have never read Pilgrim’s Progress, never heard of Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” have no idea who Charles Spurgeon is, and think that the Left Behind series qualifies as good Christian fiction. That’s why I try to review a lot of older texts on my site. I love the quote by Lewis and think that is a good suggestion (gonna borrow that quote for my blog). Reading works by the Puritans may be challenging at first, but it gets easier the more you do it. It’s like using a muscle that hasn’t been worked enough – just needs to be stretched and exercised.