On the reading of old books

C.S. Lewis once wrote an essay entitled On the Reading of Old Books, in which he argued, if memory serves, that there are far too many books published each year for anybody to even contemplate reading them, so a pretty good way of thinning them out is to pick ones that have stood the test of time.

Since coming across this in my youth, I’ve tried, very roughly, to read one book published before my lifetime for every one I read that was written during my lifetime. This still leaves me heavily biased towards the present, of course, but it does go some way towards correcting my natural reading tendencies. I guess we’ve probably reached the time, for people of my age or younger, when it would be a good rule to apply to movies as well.

Lewis could have added another benefit of old books: that they’re generally out of copyright and so freely available on places like Project Gutenberg, so can be read on your iPhone using Stanza. It’s funny that he neglected to mention that.

Take Jerome K. Jerome, for example. Everyone knows Three Men in a Boat. But I also rather like his Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow and was browsing it over a decidedly idle breakfast this morning. What a great blogger he would have been! Here’s an extract, to take you for a moment back to 1886:

A man—an unmarried man, that is—is never seen to such disadvantage as when undergoing the ordeal of “seeing baby.” A cold shudder runs down his back at the bare proposal, and the sickly smile with which he says how delighted he shall be ought surely to move even a mother’s heart, unless, as I am inclined to believe, the whole proceeding is a mere device adopted by wives to discourage the visits of bachelor friends.

It is a cruel trick, though, whatever its excuse may be. The bell is rung and somebody sent to tell nurse to bring baby down. This is the signal for all the females present to commence talking “baby,” during which time you are left to your own sad thoughts and the speculations upon the practicability of suddenly recollecting an important engagement, and the likelihood of your being believed if you do. Just when you have concocted an absurdly implausible tale about a man outside, the door opens, and a tall, severe-looking woman enters, carrying what at first sight appears to be a particularly skinny bolster, with the feathers all at one end. Instinct, however, tells you that this is the baby, and you rise with a miserable attempt at appearing eager. When the first gush of feminine enthusiasm with which the object in question is received has died out, and the number of ladies talking at once has been reduced to the ordinary four or five, the circle of fluttering petticoats divides, and room is made for you to step forward. This you do with much the same air that you would walk into the dock at Bow Street, and then, feeling unutterably miserable, you stand solemnly staring at the child. There is dead silence, and you know that every one is waiting for you to speak. You try to think of something to say, but find, to your horror, that your reasoning faculties have left you. It is a moment of despair, and your evil genius, seizing the opportunity, suggests to you some of the most idiotic remarks that it is possible for a human being to perpetrate. Glancing round with an imbecile smile, you sniggeringly observe that “it hasn’t got much hair has it?” Nobody answers you for a minute, but at last the stately nurse says with much gravity:

“It is not customary for children five weeks old to have long hair.” Another silence follows this, and you feel you are being given a second chance, which you avail yourself of by inquiring if it can walk yet, or what they feed it on.

By this time you have got to be regarded as not quite right in your head, and pity is the only thing felt for you. The nurse, however, is determined that, insane or not, there shall be no shirking and that you shall go through your task to the end. In the tones of a high priestess directing some religious mystery she says, holding the bundle toward you:

“Take her in your arms, sir.” You are too crushed to offer any resistance and so meekly accept the burden. “Put your arm more down her middle, sir,” says the high-priestess, and then all step back and watch you intently as though you were going to do a trick with it.

What to do you know no more than you did what to say. It is certain something must be done, and the only thing that occurs to you is to heave the unhappy infant up and down to the accompaniment of “oopsee-daisy,” or some remark of equal intelligence. “I wouldn’t jig her, sir, if I were you,” says the nurse; “a very little upsets her.” You promptly decide not to jig her and sincerely hope that you have not gone too far already.

At this point the child itself, who has hitherto been regarding you with an expression of mingled horror and disgust, puts an end to the nonsense by beginning to yell at the top of its voice, at which the priestess rushes forward and snatches it from you with “There! there! there! What did ums do to ums?” “How very extraordinary!” you say pleasantly. “Whatever made it go off like that?”

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1 Comment

Excellent suggestion! Loved the excerpt, could you post more of your favorite older books? I’m slowly amassing a list of books I will eventually get around to reading, mostly composed of older books that, as you said, have withstood the test of time.

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