For the Love of God: Read Old Books

A few months before the US elections of 2016, my creative output cratered. I had got interested in the news, and begun to follow it. I stopped reading books, instead reading articles online. Most of them were pretty good, and I learned some interesting stuff from them. But what I learned was mostly obsolescent just a few weeks later. This is to say that it didn’t matter, and I shouldn’t have wasted my time on it.

If you want to be creative, or good, or in touch with things as they are, you simply must cut off almost all consumption of media. You must instead go for walks under the sky, read old books that don’t much pertain to our current travails, spend time in prayer, contemplation and silence, get away from the noise and the hurry of any sort, and turn your attention to heavenly things, and away from earthly things. Earthly things are all dead (this is why they vanish like chaff in the wind). Your life – your real life, your true life, the one that truly matters to you and to those whom you love (especially your children) – is hid with Christ in God. Seek it there. Seek him there.

OK: now to check up on Drudge …


16 thoughts on “For the Love of God: Read Old Books

  1. Pingback: For the Love of God: Read Old Books | @the_arv

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  3. Absolutely second this. I’ve actually become rather disconnected and haphazard in my understanding of current events, but the sense of “rootedness” one receives from reading the contemporary observations of one’s predecessors really sharpens one’s mind for interpreting the mayhem from the broader picture. And, very importantly, for learning which sources are safe to ignore.

  4. The house was quiet and the world was calm.
    The reader became the book; and summer night

    Was like the conscious being of the book.
    The house was quiet and the world was calm.

    The words were spoken as if there was no book,
    Except that the reader leaned above the page,

    Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
    The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

    The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
    The house was quiet because it had to be.

    The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
    The access of perfection to the page.

    And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
    In which there is no other meaning, itself

    Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
    Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

    (Wallace Stevens)

  5. Complete immersion in the Now is bad for one’s mind and one’s soul, but anchoritic abstraction also has its perils. Most of us retreat from the World in part to prepare ourselves for a return to the Moil and the Hurley Burley. There is a place for contemplatives in Christianity, but most of us are called to engage with the World.

    • To be sure. I was not exactly living the eremitical life before the run up to the Brexit vote (which was about the time I began checking up on the news every few hours). But I was spending a lot more time reading books, enjoying family life, writing, and walking about in the City. Aye, and more time with the animals of the household, the plant and equipment thereof, music and friends, and so forth. Absorption in the news of the hour alienated me a bit – a noticeable, significant bit – from all the concrete immediate features of my life, that confer true value and nourish a full inward life.

      Absorption in the media is bad for the hermit; it is bad for the man about town; it is bad for the husband.

      A half hour quietly folding laundry feeds the spiritual life better than if the radio had been playing at the same time.

  6. Years ago, I cut out media more or less cold turkey. My first reaction was a strong sense of isolation, but over time, it led to a much stronger sense of connection, not just with my own thoughts, prayer, etc., but with the people, places, experiences around me (which I think just reveals that I had replaced what was real with something electronic, i.e. fake). More recently, I tried a one-month news fast, after hearing from someone else who had done it. It really will re-orient you to something more important. What’s more, when you return to the news, you’ll realize you haven’t missed a thing–it’s just the same set of stories recycled over and over.

    • … when you return to the news, you’ll realize you haven’t missed a thing–it’s just the same set of stories recycled over and over.

      Quite. Might just as well be watching the “Soaps.”

  7. WordPress frustrated the posting of an excellent comment from Extollager, who then emailed it to us. It is:

    C. S. Lewis’s inspiring brief essay should be read by Christian undergraduates and taken to heart for a lifetime. It is a convincing and convicting argument for our real need of reading “old books” (Lewis gives examples), since, even when they err, their errors will likely not be the errors that pervade our particular time and about which today’s enemies often are in agreement without realizing it.

    (Let the reader take note.)

    The Lewis essay was a preface to a translation of St. Athanasius’s treatise On the Incarnation of the Word, which is itself something that many Christians would do well to read every so often – a work of proven value to Christians of many different societies throughout many centuries. The translation that Lewis was introducing is available in paperback from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press (which, by the way, has a whole popular patristics line of books). If one can’t wait to get hold of this translation, an older translation is available immediately.

    I quote below the final paragraph of St. Athanasius’s treatise from the linked translation. It’s a call to repentance and amendment of life specifically in the context of our reading practices. Your posting, Kristor, was a call to repentance: since in our time, the dispersal of attention across a wide range of idle points of interest is a sin that so easily trips us up. As if we had all the time in the world … But though we have access to so much to read online, the clock still ticks for us just as it always has done. This, for us, is the day, but the night is coming when no man can work. What good will my Internet browsing be to me when I am old and the time for nourishing the soul by reading has passed?

    Anyway, from St. Athanasius:

    But for the searching of the Scriptures and true knowledge of them, an honourable life is needed, and a pure soul, and that virtue which is according to Christ; so that the intellect guiding its path by it, may be able to attain what it desires, and to comprehend it, in so far as it is accessible to human nature to learn concerning the Word of God.

    For without a pure mind and a modelling of the life after the saints, a man could not possibly comprehend the words of the saints.

    For just as, if a man wished to see the light of the sun, he would at any rate wipe and brighten his eye, purifying himself in some sort like what he desires, so that the eye, thus becoming light, may see the light of the sun; or as, if a man would see a city or country, he at any rate comes to the place to see it – thus he that would comprehend the mind of those who speak of God must needs begin by washing and cleansing his soul, by his manner of living, and approach the saints themselves by imitating their works; so that, associated with them in the conduct of a common life, he may understand also what has been revealed to them by God, and thenceforth, as closely knit to them, may escape the peril of the sinners and their fire at the day of judgment, and receive what is laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven, which “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man,” [1 Corinthians 2:9]whatsoever things are prepared for them that live a virtuous life, and love the God and Father, in Christ Jesus our Lord: through Whom and with Whom be to the Father Himself, with the Son Himself, in the Holy Spirit, honour and might and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

    Lewis’s introduction to the Athanasius treatise, by the way, while recognizing that the saint is not the author of the Athanasian Creed (Quicunque vult), has words to say to those who malign it.

  8. Seconded. I have not read that essay by Lewis for many years, but I still remember blushing with shame when Lewis found me out and reproved me for having read commentaries on difficult ancient authors rather than the authors themselves. Mea culpa! A fault I am working (too slowly, alas) on correcting.

  9. C. S. Lewis followed the positive practices your posting recommends, Kristor — daily prayer, walks under the sky, reading old books, etc. He also appears generally to have avoided immersion in the mass media of his day (newspapers, radio, news magazines, and, eventually, TV).

    He did see the Coronation of Elizabeth on someone’s television set, though, and was moved thereby. He supported the monarchy:

    Monarchy can easily be ‘debunked’; but watch the faces, mark well the accents, of the debunkers. These are the men whose tap-root in Eden has been cut: whom no rumour of the polyphony, the dance, can reach—men to whom pebbles laid in a row are more beautiful than an arch. Yet even if they desire mere equality they cannot reach it. Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour millionaires, athletes, or film-stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters. Fur spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.

    I might mention Lewis’s tongue-in-cheek response to an invitation from the Society for the Prevention of Progress, of Walnut Creek, California (1944):

    I shall hope by continued orthodoxy and the unremitting practice of Reaction, Obstruction, and Stagnation to give you no reason for repenting your favour …

    By the way, Kristor’s post here reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s essential novel That Hideous Strength, specifically of the part that reading plays in the lives of Jane and Mark Studdock as they grope towards truth. At one point Jane is thinking about reading Shakespeare that evening, but thinks maybe she will listen to some Bach chorales — we might consider that deliberate, attentive listening (NOT having the music on “in the background” while “multitasking”) to “old music” would be helpful. Those who have read THS may remember that it’s not all “demanding” reading that Mark and Jane engage in; there’s also Sherlock Holmes.

    I’m reminded also of how Fr. Seraphim Rose ministered to damaged-goods teenagers who came to the remote skete in northern California. He didn’t automatically set them to reading the Philokalia; he introduced them to Dickens, with his warmly human feeling. See the chapter called “Forming Young Souls” in Christensen’s biography of Rose. I won’t attempt to summarize it. It might be a worthy subject for a blog entry here from Kristor.

    I’ve found in my own college teaching that students respond perhaps surprisingly well to Dickens.

    • The representation of QEII’s coronation in the Netflix series Crown is worth watching. It admirably captures the sacred aspect of the rite, and thus of the Royal office – particularly in the close up portrayal of the interaction between the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury at the tremendous moment of her anointing. I found it beautiful, and hair-raising, and True: a respectful recognition of the ingress to mundane life of the Holy, and its consecration thereby.

  10. Pingback: This Week In Reaction (2017/05/07) - Social Matter

  11. Some quotes I’ve gathered on this phenomenon:

    Be sure that the patient remains completely fixated on politics. Arguments, political gossip, and obsessing on the faults of people they have never met serves as an excellent distraction from advancing in personal virtue, character, and the things the patient can control. (CS Lewis in the Screwtape Letters, 1942)

    … [the telegraph] unleashed the demand for immediate reporting of irrelevant information from distant locations, by making it more entertaining and accessible. (Rick Bookstaber, 2012)

    If a man has not read the newspapers for some months, and then reads them all together, he will find out how much time is wasted upon this class of literature. (Goethe, 1833)

    Yes, there is a choice in books as in friends, and the mind sinks or rises to the level of its habitual society, is subdued, as Shakespeare says of the dyer’s hand, to what it works in. Cato’s advice, cum bonis ambula, consort with the good, is quite as true if we extend it to books, for they, too, insensibly give away their own nature to the mind that converses with them. They either beckon upwards or drag down.

    We are apt to wonder at the scholarship of the men of three centuries ago and at a certain dignity of phrase that characterizes them. They were scholars because they did not read so many things as we. They had fewer books, but these were of the best. Their speech was noble, because they lunched with Plutarch and supped with Plato. We spend as much time over print as they did, but instead of communing with the choice thoughts of choice spirits, and unconsciously acquiring the grand manner of that supreme society, we diligently inform ourselves, and cover the continent with a cobweb of telegraphs to inform us, of such inspiring facts as that a horse belonging to Mr. Smith ran away on Wednesday, seriously damaging a valuable carry-all ; that a son of Mr. Brown swallowed a hickory nut on Thursday ; and that a gravel bank caved in and buried Mr. Robinson alive on Friday. Alas, it is we ourselves that are getting buried alive under this avalanche of earthy impertinences! (James Russell Lowell, 1885)

    • I am pleased at the reflection that the Orthosphere pays almost no attention to the news of the day. Lowell, Goethe, and Lewis – and I suppose Bookstaber, although this is my first acquaintance with him – are all themselves such minds as those of whom Lowell speaks. Lowell, Lewis, Goethe and Bookstaber all themselves beckon us upwards, by their reverence for their own masters. So in reading them, and writing in their light, may we do also.


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