Why Read Old Books?

Note: This post is adapted from a speech I gave to my Toastmasters club.

Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov once said, “If you want new ideas, read old books. If you want old ideas, read new books.”

Following this observation, I have made a point to read old books.

Pavlov’s maxim applies to both fiction and non-fiction, from the epic poems of Homer to the stories of Washington Irving to Greek philosophy to the Bible.

Picking up a dusty copy of The Iliad will transport to you the world of raging Achilles and bold Hector in the carnage of the Trojan War.

Or you could make a trip to rural New York, circa 1790, and become acquainted with the fearful Ichabod Crane in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Either of these books would excellently reveal to the reader that the heroes and villains of the past weren’t so different from us.

Whether it’s the wearied prince Hector’s longing for peace, or the hapless Ichabod’s unrequited affections for Katrina, we can all see something of ourselves, both admirable and repellant, in these imaginary characters and the eras they inhabit.

Reading old books is beneficial because it allows the reader to glimpse into other worlds, in order to better understand the past and to apply it to the present.

When I say you should read “old books,” I generally mean you should read the classics. That said, what is a classic?

Orson Scott Card, the author of Ender’s Game (an excellent read, by the way), once defined a classic as stories that are so good you want to share them with your children.

When I was seven or eight years old, my mother gave me a new set of books to read: The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis.

I loved those books dearly, reading them and re-reading them, and being overjoyed to hear the audio drama versions of them, before being crushed when the films failed to meet my expectations.

I later read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien, eventually finding my way to Shakespeare’s plays Hamlet and Macbeth, and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. By the time I was 18, I had read the entirety of the Bible ten times.

All of these aforementioned books, written across multiple continents in the span of dozens of hundreds of years, have been passed down through the centuries to us. We can read all of them at any time on our cell phones.

But why read them at all?

The first reason to read old books is that it provides a window to the past.

At some point in time, the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving, sat down and thought up his story.

Irving was an American, influenced by stories of European folklore that he had picked up during his travels through the continent in the nineteenth century.

Reading his story allows us to get acquainted with his thought process and walk around in his mind a little.

Imagine what could have inspired passages such as this one, describing the town of Sleepy Hollow:

“However wide awake they may have been before they entered that sleepy region, they are sure, in a little time, to inhale the witching influence of the air, and begin to grow imaginative—to dream dreams, and see apparitions.”

You see that this is a time when the majority of people took the reality of the supernatural for granted— whether that idea lay in base superstition or religious faith.

To look back on such a concept with disdain would defeat the purpose of reading old books. Our ancestors were no more ignorant than we are, and in many ways were our intellectual betters.

Instead, our goal in reading old books is to look into the past, seeing a world that is very much like ours.

Take The Illiad for example. This epic poem is one of the foundational works of the western canon.

In Homer’s poem, the warriors on both sides of the war, the Achaeans and the Trojans, frequently blame the gods for their troubles, and the gods are shown meddling in human affairs quite frequently.

This human tendency to want to assign direct blame for misfortune and injustice to an ethereal, all-encompassing source is not new.

If there’s one thing that I took away from listening to The Iliad on audiobook, it’s that people have been saying, “It’s not fair!” since 800 B.C.

So whether you’d like to peruse the works of Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, or C. S. Lewis, or perhaps more ancient writers like Homer and the multitude of authors responsible for the Bible, I cannot recommend reading old books more than enough.

For there is no better way to enrich your mind, discipline your imagination, and open your eyes to another way of life than to turn the pages of a classic tome.

If any of you have children, grandchildren, or young nieces or nephews, your duty to pass on these great books is crucial.

The older generation must teach the younger generation of this important pastime. Otherwise, we face a new age of darkness, chained in the bonds of ignorance.

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