August 12, 2020

Old Books and New

We all had fun recently listing our favorite novels for Jeff Dunn.  The lists included many excellent, inspiring books, and some that were odd, amusing, or horrifying.  The majority of them were written since 1900.  It’s natural that when we read for pleasure we would read contemporary books, particularly novels, that use modern dialects and deal with familiar issues.

But C. S. Lewis (another contemporary writer) doesn’t want to leave us there, among the comfortable books of our own age.  In his introduction to “Athanasius on the Incarnation,” he says this:

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’s writing this advice not to scholars but to amateurs like us, and he is speaking particularly of books on theology.  He would recommend that after reading Robert Capon, we should read Athanasius.  Why?

Lewis explains,

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. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.  . . . 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, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. 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. . . . The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.  . . . People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.

I’d like you to share some suggestions of older books to read.  I tried to limit my own contributions to five, but they expanded a bit.  Here they are.

The first is Confessions by Saint Augustine.  That man could tell a story!  This is the classic conversion account, written in the fourth century AD.

The second is The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, written in the thirteen hundreds.  Most of us know the first book, Inferno, but the next two, Purgatorio and Paradiso, are even more worth reading.  Dante’s description of Paradise particularly challenged my modern, democratic ideas and drove me back to the Bible to see where the truth of God’s creation might lie.

Third is The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence.  Brother Lawrence was a seventeenth-century Catholic monk whose simple life of communion with God attracted his contemporaries and continues to inspire people today.

I have to cheat and lump some poets together:  John Donne’s Holy Sonnets and everything by George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins.  I won’t try to summarize them, just give them a try.

Finally, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight won the arm-wrestling match with Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy.  Gawain may not seem to be a “Christian” work, but it is; it shows the sensibilities of a complex age where Christianity struggled with and finally baptized an earlier, pagan culture.  Plus it’s a ripping yarn.

Last but not least is Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, from the mid-fourteen hundreds. It’s written particularly for monastics, but the gentle wisdom of the book is appropriate for everyone.

I’m confident that many of you in the Internet Monastery are already acting on Lewis’ advice to read old books.  We’d like to hear from you all about the old books you’ve read and found most helpful in enabling you to understand God and the world better.  Please write in a title or two, with the author when known, and a brief description of the contents and value of the book.  Give us some suggestions to broaden our understanding and avoid narrow contemporary mistakes.

Comments

  1. Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor – at a time when there is much ink spilt about church as community, Baxter offers a compelling narrative about being a shepherd.

    • Chaucer’s description of the Parson in the Prologue of “The Canturbury Tales” is a beautiful portrait of a shepherd, too.

  2. I had the same thought when I read the lists from Jeff Dunn’s post. Where are the old books?
    This summer I read War & Peace by Tolstoy. I was intimidated of the book at first being that it was more than 1,000 pages long! I was expecting a hard read but it was actually pretty enjoyable reading. I will never look at history the same after this book. it also makes you look at free will & determinism in new ways. the Imitation of Christ is a book every Christian should read as well. peace

  3. Hearty second on The Confessions and Divine Comedy. I can’t recommend highly enough William Cook and Ron Herzman’s Teaching Company courses on The Confessions and The Divine Comedy. Cook and Herzman are excellent guides for the first time reader.

    The Divine Comedy is not a work to be read just once. Cook and Herzman say in their first lecture that “once you’ve read The Divine Comedy, you’re ready to read The Divine Comedy“. I recently completed my second reading, and am eagerly looking forward to my third in a couple of years.

    On my second reading of the Commedia, I read Guy Raffa’s The Complete Danteworlds: A Reader’s Guide to the Divine Comedy along with the text. It’s a wonderful reference/commentary that helps the reader get the most out of Dante’s work.

    • Almost forgot: don’t choke at the prices of the Teaching Company courses. Nobody ever pays those list prices. All their courses go on sale a couple of times per year. The 24 lecture audio courses usually sell for $34.95.

  4. “Most of us know the first book, Inferno, but the next two, Purgatorio and Paradiso, are even more worth reading.”

    Seconded, thirded and fourthed, Damaris! I keep quoting chunks of Dante whenever I’m trying to make theological arguments to the point where it’s not even funny anymore. And everyone knows (or thinks they know) the “Inferno”, but that’s merely the first step on his journey. You have to pass through the “Purgatorio” and on to the “Paradiso” to get what he intends.

    Cheating, maybe, but I’d also recommend reading non-fiction, particularly history. Anything you can get your hands on, because it’s so easy to think that “Today we are faced with problems unique to us and never before faced by any culture/society”, and history is a good antidote to that.

    Even something like the Sherlock Holmes stories: Dr. Watson is a veteran of the Afghan wars. Over a hundred years later, the new BBC adaptation , set in 2010, has John Watson an army veteran returned from – Afghanistan. The turn of history has made it once more relevant. Gives a perspective on rushing into anything with the mindset that “All we need to do is – “.

    • Non-fiction suggestions are encouraged! History is excellent.

    • FollowerOfHim says

      “I keep quoting chunks of Dante whenever I’m trying to make theological arguments to the point where it’s not even funny anymore.”

      The obvious question being, “Was the Divine Comedy ever that funny to begin with?” No makea me laugha.

      More seriously, I remember reading a passage of Yves Hamant’s wonderful bio of Fr. Alexandr Men of Russia, in which Fr. Alexandr was simply standing out in his garden, reading aloud from Dante — in the original Italian, I believe. If it’s good enough for him, it’s certainly good enough for me.

      • I do laugh at parts; the bit where the heavy-weight theologians in the Fourth Heaven of the Sun are compared to a chiming carriage-clock:

        139 Then, like a clock that calls us at the hour
        140 when the bride of God gets up to sing
        141 matins to her bridegroom, that he should love her still,
        142 when a cog pulls one wheel and drives another,
        143 chiming its ting-ting with notes so sweet
        144 that the willing spirit swells with love,
        145 thus I saw that glorious wheel in motion,
        146 matching voice to voice in harmony
        147 and with sweetness that cannot be known
        148 except where joy becomes eternal.

        Okay, so it’s not a LOL! type of joke, but the notion of the Greatest Minds of the Centuries being compared to a little gilt clock sitting on the mantelpiece that goes “Ding! Ding!” when striking the hours appeals to my sense of humour.

        🙂

        Though I think I love the “Purgatorio” most; I never weep during Hell, but I’m often reduced to floods of tears when Dante and Virgil are climbing up the terraces of Mount Purgatory (and there’s a lot of smiling going on there as well).

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Well Inferno is the most popular of the three. Maybe because of (as one wag in my high school put it) “All the nifty ways to get even with somebody.”

      Christian Monist blogged some comments when he read Dante for the first time. (Cannot include link because of NSFW title, but Google-searching on “christian monist dante” should bring it up first.) Apparently Dante populated Hell with a lot of his personal enemies, in a fictionalized revenge fantasy.

  5. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (14th century). There’s a good modern translation by Theodore Morrison in the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces.

    Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex

    Plato’s Euthyphro, Apology, Crito (also his “Cave Allegory”, from The Republic)

    Pretty much anything from the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces…

    • Sorry. Didn’t pay attention to the assignment.

      Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are just plain fun, a bunch of people on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And an exposure to the original Middle English wouldn’t hurt anybody, but read it in Morrison’s translation too.

      Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (of killed-his-father-married-his-mother cliche fame) deals with Fate (or God’s will, if you like, predestination, etc) in an outrageous manner. Calvinism on steroids.

      Plato’s Euthyphro asks some hard questions about the nature of God (or “the gods”, in his case) and where truth, justice, piety really come from. His “Cave Allegory” deals with ultimate reality, very much like the Apostle Paul does in 1Corinthians13, as in “now we see through a glass darkly, yet then we shall see face to face” (Is this all there is? Or is there something greater that we cannot now comprehend?).

      • Nit-picking correction ahoy!

        The pilgrims aren’t going to the Holy Land, but to the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket in Canterbury. They set out from London and – well, Chaucer never quite got them there in the end, but that’s where they’re headed.

        • That’s not nit-picking if my geography is a whole continent off! I should have remembered:

          And specially from every shires ende
          Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
          The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
          That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

          Mostly I remember the prologue in the Middle English (without remembering where they were going) and the Miller’s Tale, which my literature professor told the class was NOT in the assigned reading, and we should NOT read it (wink-wink) because it contains bawdy humor. Naturally, we read that first.

          • Has anyone here tried Geoffrey Chaucer Hath A Blog? It’s a mediaevalist writing in the persona and style of Chaucer and it makes me laugh anyways; rarely updated, alas!

            But try Grendel’s poem to his mother for Mother’s Day, or my favourite – because St. Patrick is the hero in the end – Serpents on a Shippe:

            http://houseoffame.blogspot.com/

          • Clicked “Add to Favorites”!!!

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            I once saw a stage presentation of what I think was “The Reeve’s Tale” at a Renfaire. My reaction was “It’s a Medieval version of Animal House!”

            Like the Miller’s Tale, Slob Comedy goes way back…

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        As long as you mentioned Oedipus Rex, Ted…

        Here’s that classic according to Tom Lehrer…

  6. David Cornwell says

    This blog is a book lovers paradise!

    Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” speaking to themes like dysfunction , family, freedom, stuggle, belief, unbelief , and hope. Youngest son Alyosha becomes something of the vehicle for hope and moral compass. This book isn’t for one sitting because if I remember correctly it is about 1000 pages.

    Mark Twain’s (Samuel Clemons) “Huckleberry Finn” and “The War Prayer.” Each new war that comes along, I think of this prayer. Maybe football games also!

    And ditto to Augustine’s “Confessions.”

    • FollowerOfHim says

      The Brothers Karamazov is hearby seconded. Though I know we’re promoting books and the actual reading thereof, I have to give some props to the ca. 1960 film rendering of the same, with Yul Brynner as Dmitri and a very young, but decidedly un-Kirklike, William Shatner as Alyosha.

      • I often pick up The The Brothers Karamazov just to read ‘the great inquisitor’ – it is an excelent tale which digs deep into the Temptation of Christ – truly a great book!
        but i find Tolstoy easier to read than Fyodor Dostoyevsky – peace

    • Speaking of Twain, the funniest thing ever written — and I will defend this! — is his essay on “James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”

      • Damaris isn’t kidding! Don’t let the title turn you off: “James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” is a riot.

        Best. Essay. Ever.

        Period.

      • Another vote for “James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” I’m sure I’ve read it 50 times, and it still makes me laugh out loud.

      • On a serious note, my favorite Twain piece is “A War Prayer”. I’ve read it a number of times, have it on a CD and even say it televised.

    • I enjoyed Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” which I read for a church book club. I was intrigued by the Russian mindset and the role that suffering plays, especially when tortured by the consequences of one’s own sin.

      “The Brothers Karamozov” is on my list of books to read after completing my reading for comps.

  7. A couple more for the road:

    The poems of Hildegard of Bingen

    “The Way of the Pilgrim” by Anonymous

    • I wanted to put “The Way of the Pilgrim” on the list! Thank you.

    • Jonathanblake says

      I was just thinking “The Way of the Pilgrim” when I came across this post. How about “The Pilgrim’s Progress” since we’re talking pilgrims here.

  8. THE GOSPEL MYSTERY OF SANCTIFICATION by Walter Marshall, first published in 1692 but put into Modern English in 2005 (ISBN 978-1597520546)

    Marshall explains holiness in a way no contemporary author has been able to do for me. This is not a book about sanctification (or justification) by works or a how-to on spiritual disciplines. This is a book about becoming holy through union with Christ by faith. Marshall addresses the extremes of legalism and lawlessness, then focuses on gospel grace. Each chapter builds upon the one before it in a way that makes sense to me, alleviates doubt and despair, and offers hope and assurance.

    I like many of the 17th century authors. I have discovered them to be quite different from the way they were portrayed when I was in school (legalistic, dour), and I find their teachings relevant and compelling still.

  9. Ditto to “Practice of the presence” and “Imitation of Christ”. I’d add Pilgrim’s Progress, the Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila and the Dark Night of the Soul by John of the Cross.

    History I’ve found helpful in gaining perspective on the church in history, God’s providence, Biblical interpretation: Josephus’ Jewish Wars, Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

    Ben Franklin’s autobiography.

  10. Past and Present by Thomas Carlyle.

    The book is written in three sections. The first section is a rant about all that was wrong with Victorian England (aside from the Corn Laws, it was all the same stuff that is wrong with America today.) the second section hales back to the 12th Century when a certain Abbott Samson takes charge of the dissolute monastery of St. Edmundsbury and revives it with a potent combination of piety, hard work, and uncompromising determination to do what was right. The third section applies the lessons learned from Samson’s example back to the modern (Victorian) society.

    The Anabasis of Xenophon

    Hundreds of miles from home, surrounded by sworn enemies and out of supplies, Xenophon’s army appears doomed at the outset of this pre-Christian narrative. But they make their way back to Greece by “contending most nobly,” which means fighting, negotiating, cooperating or fleeing as circumstance dictated. My favorite parts are the speeches. The Greeks will be about to do something disastrous when Xenophon or another of the leaders will jump up on a wagon and shout, “Countrymen! Listen to me!” And then he’ll deliver a speech that is both inspiring and practical. And the people will do as they are told and be saved. That hardly ever happens these days.

  11. Jonathanblake says

    When it comes to novels, I remember “Ben-Hur” by Lew Wallace was an incredible novel set in the time of Christ. I remember it giving so much background to the Gospels. Also “Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo was a very surprising read for me. I wasn’t sure how I’d like it but the story of redemption gripped me intensely.

    • Les Miserables was wonderful…in the abridged version. The history of the sewers of Paris, say, was wonderfully comprehensive, but not really essential to the plot…

      • Jonathanblake says

        I guess I read the abridged because I don’t remember a history of the sewers of Paris

      • You tend to lose some really important things, I think, in the abridged versions. Plot things. Wonderful things like the description of the Bishop, and Jean ValJean rescuing Cossette. Besides, there’s more of a point to ‘Les Miserables’ than the central plot; Victor Hugo is creating a broad and insightful context for the plot to occur in. I can see skimming some sections, but I wouldn’t read an abridged version.

        But I suppose I’m not a very typical reader. After reading Mann’s ‘Joseph and his Brothers,’ I think I could get through nearly anything, so long as it interested me.
        (For example, the conversation between Joseph and the Pharaoh – pretty much just straight up dialogue – encompassed ninety-two pages, interesting nearly to a one.)

    • I wasn’t sure of Ben Hur counted as an old book, being just over a century old. But, yeah!

      Lew Wallace’s kindhearted telling of the nativity in Ben Hur is especially worthwhile at Christmas time.

  12. The collected poems of St. Ephraim the Syrian (Classics of Western Spirituality series). He was an absolutely masterful wordsmith and theologian; his hymns/poems on the Nativity in particular make for excellent Christmastime reading. In general, he’s a a great window onto the development of the church in the east. Another good Eastern poet, of a slightly different lineage, would be Rumi – a Sufi mystic from the 1200s or so. Beautiful, beautiful poems on the Divine and on searching for truth.

  13. Two I never tire of: The Cloud of Unknowing, and the Book of Privy Counsel. To think that both endorsed centering prayer over 800 years ago, and yet some can still think of it as a “New Age” phenomenon.

  14. Many of my favorites were already mentioned, but in case I missed it, Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, The Devout Life by Francis de Sales, The Sacrament of the Present Moment by Jean Pierre de Cassaud and anything by Francois Fenelon including many of his letters put in various books and the Royal way of the cross.

  15. “Theologia Germanica”
    “Didache”
    “Holy Living”, by Jeremy Walters
    “The Praise of Folly” by Desiderius Erasmus
    “The Sacrament of This Present Moment”, by Jean-Pierre de Caussade
    “Dark Night of the Soul”, by Saint John of the Cross

  16. The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Bulter: A must read. Voted one of the top 20 English novels of all time. Very poignant in the spirit of the discussion on this forum. It is about the author’s observations and participation in the saving of one young man from a Victorian family that is has been seduced and intoxicated by “Christian goodness” (while that goodness is very superficial at best). Brilliant!

    A Tale of Two Cities, beautifully written with astute observations about human nature (and substitutionary atonement) by a genius in the art of word craft, Charles Dickens.

  17. “The City of God” by Saint Augustine. It is a beast- I’ve been reading it slowly for about the past 4 years. But it is SO good!

    • Jonathan M says

      I am also on the long-term reading plan with that book. It is great, so far, and Augustine’s style is amazing.

      • I kinda think that it is MANDATORY to be on the long-term reading plan with “City of God”… XD
        Although I knew someone that apparently read it in one week. Now, that is insanity!

  18. I would recommend just about anything by William Shakespeare. His plays contain some wonderful insights into human nature, and his unmatched use of wordplay is a great training board for mental gymnastics.
    I also have a diabolical fondness for the works of troublemakers and heretics like Peter Abelard and John Huss. And if I had to choose one work from preChristian antiquity, it would probably be Plato’s “Gorgias” — which is an excellent guide for discerning naked truth from well-dressed BS.

  19. textjunkie says

    I second the Ben Hur recommendations.
    Also Quo Vadis –I never saw the movie, but the book is amazing for what it does with Peter and Paul, making them human, making their sermons have immediacy, for giving excellent examples of God’s grace.

    And John Donne’s poems–either the love poems or the ones on God- from the late 1500s are little nuggets worth spending some time looking at. When they work for you, they’re fantastic examples of incredible emotion or thought put into elegant, succinct phrases.

    I was just in a conversation a few weeks ago where people were asking for science fiction/fantasy titles from before the 1900’s–so now I can pull up all of Jules Verne’s stuff, but none of that is really relevant in this discussion. 😉

    I’ve always been fond of Pedro Calderon de la Barca from the Spanish Golden Age–not as raunchy as Lope de Vega, at least in the works I read. More philosophical. La vida es sueno, y los suenos, suenos son. It’s worth getting out of the English mindset occasionally–Spain was doing some amazing stuff.

    Which of course points to Teresa of Avila’s works, and St. John of the Cross–deep, deep, deep mysticism. The kind of work that makes you feel your brain re-organizing as you read it. 🙂

    The nice thing is the Wikipedia articles are so helpful on these historical authors, giving their background, context, development of their work over their lifetime, with pointers to their various collections and translations. Fun reading!!

    • You can get Stl. Teresa’s Interior Castle, St. John’s Dark Night and Br. Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence as one Kindle book for almost nothing. A real bargain for the depth of the reading.

  20. Surprised no-one has mentioned ‘Paradise Lost.’ No the iMonastary’s cup-a-tea?

    Well, Western Christian classics have been pretty well covered already. Let me throw out some nonorthodox alternatives.

    The Kalevala – the national epic of Finland. This is a collection of narrative poems telling the myths, legends, and other accounts that comprise much of Finnish mythology. My current writing project draws heavily upon it. Tolkien based Turin Turambar from the ‘Silmarilion’ and ‘Children of Hurin’ on one of its characters.

    ‘Monkey’ or ‘Journey to the West’ – depending on the translation. An old Chinese novel by Wu Ch’eng-en. It tells the story of the powerful yet mischievous monkey-king as he, as punishment for his misdeeds, has to escort a monk westward in a quest for a Buddhist scripture. Adventure ensues. A lot of fun, and a very different perspective on mythology.

    The ancient Hindu epics are great yarns if read in summary. I find the full versions convoluted and tedious. But the Bhagavad-gita is excellent. Read it if you want to understand Hinduism, or India, or Ghandi, or if you want to think about ethics and spirituality in a different way. Eknath Easwaran wrote excellent and accessible translations and commentary of this and other Hindu classics.

    I also like trying to figure out the “Book of Changes” (I Ching). But I don’t expect many to follow me there.

    • Lukas, I read and enjoyed “Monkey” years ago. It really is fun. The I Ching is also compelling, in an odd way. I’m glad I don’t ever have to choose, but I suppose if I weren’t Christian I’d be Taoist. Classical Taoism doesn’t offer any hope beyond this world, but it is a sane description of what we see around us — minus the magic, that is . . .

      • Well, I don’t think you’re the only one to empathize with Taoism. A famous translation of the Bible into Chinese translates the greek ‘logos’ as ‘tao;’ hence, the gospel of John begins, to retranslate: ‘In the beginning was the Tao, and the Tao was with God….”

        And so I wonder. Is the heart of Christianity – the surrender of your own plans and desires, the movement of all thought and action towards a God that understands and orchestrates all things like movers in a dance or ripples in a stream- that foreign a concept to the Tao? Couldn’t we understand it as more of a completion of the understanding of the Tao – the understanding that the Tao became flesh, and dwelt among us, and that He is none other than the force that creates and sustains the Universe?

        Well, I don’t have an answer. But I at least don’t feel as though I’m wasting my time reading the Book of Changes. I can read about the Tao and say, I have met the Tao. And He was as one of us. That’s good news indeed!

        • It’s no surprise to find intimations of truth in all cultures and mythologies. Lewis says it best in “Perelandra”: “The universe is one — a spider’s web wherein each mind lives along every line, a vast whispering gallery where . . . though now news travels unchanged yet no secret can be rigorously kept. . . . Our mythology is based on a solider reality than we dream.”

  21. In the “post-evangelical” category, and to follow Damaris’ assignment to list works that are “helpful in enabling you to understand God and the world better”, let me add Nietzsche’s parable of The Madman in the Marketplace.

    Nietzsche helpful in understanding God and the world better? Yup. If you can stand him. This parable is most famous for the Madman’s famous shriek of “God is dead! And we have killed him!”

    The Madman was the only sane person in the marketplace, the only one who cared that God was missing or dead. All of the normal people were making fun of him, not even caring. Is 19th-century apathy much different from 21st-century?

  22. Moderately off topic.

    Have any of you read some older material and have been embarrassed/ saddened by the decrease in what is considered common knowledge?

    I know that I was very bothered by that when I read a collection of John Newton’s letters to friends, and a number of his Latin and other non-English quotes were beyond me, in just reading them.

    Dante’s the Divine Comedy has been mentioned a number of times, but not the translator. I tried reading Dorothy Sayer’s translation but couldn’t finish it.

    (But her “Are Women Human” is just great”)

    • Oh, there are loads of translations of the Divine Comedy out there. I’m currently enthusiastic about the Robert and Jean Hollander translation; I really like what they did with the Inferno and Purgatorio (the Paradiso I think is not as good, but then again, that’s the hardest of the three cantos to translate).

      You can get a taste of it here (indeed, you can read the whole thing online):

      http://etcweb.princeton.edu/dante/index.html

      There’s also a translation by Mark Musa which is good, too. Just a matter of finding one that you’re comfortable with 🙂

    • Well, it is sad, in a way. But overall, on average, people are better educated now than then. Then, it was pretty much only the cream of the elite that could read and write, and that anyone would pay attention to. And certainly I can lament the lack of education in classical subjects such as Greek and Latin and Medieval to Ancient writers, but we do certainly have more education on topics such as science and cross-cultural studies (including how to speak, rather than just read, other languages) now.

      Is this better? I don’t know. It’s not immediately obvious to me that things are worse now concerning education.

      • Lukas,

        I have actually seen the same chemistry book, just a later edition, simplified. I estimated that the time period was about 10 years. I’ve noticed the same thing in theology texts, for the same level, (introductory systemic )

        • Yes, the minimum bar for being ‘educated’ is dropping. Can’t say I like that. But with a bit of pursuit…

          I took Organic Chemistry in college. Tricky set of courses. At the end of the final lecture, my professor told us, “you now know enough to get a pHD in Chemistry – a century ago.’ Not all trends are downwards. If you want to be a scientist, or, even more, a physician, the course of study is extremely rigorous. To be a doctor of Literature or Philosophy? Not so much.

  23. The Complete Collection of Calvin and Hobbes

    A story about a 6 year old and his stuffed tiger and their adventures together.

    Will change your life.

    “What fun is it being cool if you can’t wear a sombrero?” -Hobbes

  24. But Hunter, this hardly qualifies as an old book by C.S. Lewis’ estimation!

  25. arpritchett says

    On the Incarnation of the Word by Athanasius is an excellent read, obviously. My other recommendation seems new compared with the antiquity of Athanasius, but Light in August by William Faulkner is also an excellent read.

  26. I add:

    First Apology by Justin the Martyr
    Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties and Roots (1879) by J. C. Ryle
    Common Sense by Thomas Paine
    Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
    Humilty by Andrew Murray
    Marcus Aurelius and His Times: The Transition from Paganism to Christianity by Irwin Edman (ed.)
    Before the Wind: The Memoirs of an America Sea Captain 1808-1833 by Charles Tyng

    I once had a professor, kindly but sharply, tell me to always mix non-fiction in with fiction, otherwise I would “stay ignorant and never learn to write properly”. She was correct, of course. I agree with what someone else said: read history, preferable history written during the time it is speaking about – if you get the right author, it is just as exciting as fiction!