“Why I Read Old Books,” by Andrew Schatkin
I would like to talk about in this essay why I read old books and why others should do the same. First, one must understand what I mean by old books. Old books are not merely books old in time or published some years ago, but they are the western literary canon, the books that have proved their value over the centuries and have stood the test of time. I can name some of these books: War and Peace by Tolstoy; Anna Karenina by Tolstoy; The Bible; the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer; The Greek Tragedies of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles; Paradise Lost by John Milton; Dante’s Inferno; Confessions of St. Augustine; the novels of Charles Dickens; the poetry of Keats, Shelley, Byron, and Tennyson; the novels of Henry James; and the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. These are a few of the books that have stood the test of time and have through the ages been found to be worthy and worthwhile knowing and reading.
There are a number of reasons why these books are no longer read widely. The first is that we live in an age of communication by images. In the past few decades, knowledge has increasingly been communicated through images on television, computers, cell phones, emails, and text messages. This culture of quick messages and a constant bombardment of images has replaced print as the essential mode of thought and communication. If one glances at the books read in the 19th century—such as John Stuart Mill; the Novels of George Eliot; the plays of Shakespeare or Marlowe or Ben Jonson and the drama of Shaw; as well as the philosophy of John Dewey and Bertrand Russell—one can see that there used to be a literary culture that demanded at least some intellectual capacity to understand the written word because there was no other form of communication. Now print communication has taken a second place to cell phone images and the old books or staples of the western canon and curriculum have lost their hold on our society largely because of their comparative difficulty to our modern books.
I offer other reasons for this development. Our school system may in some instances not assign these books to our students with the result that our young people do not come to know about them. Another reason is the quick superficiality of our present and society. Another reason is the ahistorical emphasis that governs our system with the result that nothing is seen as worthwhile except that which has occurred in the past five years. Another reason is the decline of the liberal arts curricula in our high schools and colleges due to the press and need for more practical subjects such as business and computers to equip students to have the ability to earn a living.
Another reason is political correctness to include other cultures and their books and not solely lay the emphasis on the older European culture and writers. I am not prepared to make a value judgment or say that any of these developments are bad or good, but only offer some reasons for the decline of the older literature on our society and in the educational system.
I would like to now give some reasons as to why I read old books or the books in the western canon. One reason is that old books have been tested as to their worth and value. Old books such as the ones I mentioned have been vetted with the passage of time and through hundreds of years their value has been established. Modern books have not had sufficient time and thought to determine their value. Moreover, modern books may be read as a result of media propaganda, advertising, and as authored by a person of prominence or celebrity. These are not good reasons to read a particular book. It takes a vetting process of hundreds of years to determine the value of a book. In addition, and this is a compelling reason we live in a commercial capitalist culture.
In sum, books are published because they may sell or are paid for to be self-published. Since money is the main factor in getting a book published, it is an unfortunate and sad commentary that publishing may not even be truly worthwhile. Thus one can say that I and others should read old books because they stood the test of time and modern books have not.
Let me give a second reason to read old books. Every age has its emphases and strengths. Old books are a correction and antidote to our modern age and its particular prejudices and perspectives. When we read old books, we get another age’s view of things. At the present time in the Western society, if there is any philosophy, it is materialism. That was not so in the past which was significantly more religious and accepting of the supernatural. An example would be the works of John Milton, a Puritan apologist, as well as the works of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas and Dante. These thinkers and writers came from an age more connected with religion and the supernatural as a reality. Plato also was a thinker concerned with his theory of ideas with another world outside of the material sphere. I would note that Karl Marx, a leading thinker, was something of a materialist.
Finally, I would note that our present age is not a literary age or an age of drama or poetry. It is only in reading old books that we can now understand these art forms. We are an age of great advances in technology and medicine but with something of regression in what I have just described. By reading and knowing the books of the past, we come to know epic poetry such as Homer, Virgil and Spenser, and many other forms of literary production that we might otherwise be in darkness about. By knowing the works of the past, our minds are expanded beyond Henry Miller, James Joyce, and J.D. Salinger, however worthy their literary production may be and is.