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Benefits of Reading Old Books

In my last post, I mentioned that I had been reading volume 7 of Philip Schaff's History of the Christian Church and learning to appreciate the writing characteristics of Martin Luther. In that work, which was originally published in 1888, Schaff recommended an even older book. His description was so convincing that I found it in my local library and read it--in spite of its being fiction.

Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield was published in 1766, a full decade before our Declaration of Independence. Set in England amid that country's rigid class system, it nonetheless showed human nature then to be the same as it is today.

As I read the book, I couldn't help sensing that its story line was like all the episodes of the British TV series Keeping Up Appearances. Although in that sense it begins with ridiculous (to our American sensibilities and social situation) humor, it soon turns tragic and gets only more so as the narrative unfolds. In the end, however, all wrongs are righted. As Shakespeare titled one of his plays, All's Well That Ends Well.

In spite of its being a work of fiction, The Vicar of Wakefield is quite instructive. It also set me to thinking about the many benefits of reading old books.

If one studies the best-seller lists for any length of time, it soon becomes obvious to anyone that none of the books on the list is old by any stretch of the imagination; they're all new releases. They stay on the list for a few weeks (a few months if they're real blockbusters or if their authors have well-established platforms, such as a nationally syndicated radio or TV show), but then they disappear like a drop of snow on a warm sidewalk. Few of them last. Their appeal and value are ephemeral.

But the old books are still around. They hold their value over the generations, in fact over multiple centuries. Why? Because they are "evergreens."

Ephemerals versus evergreens. That's our choice.

Consider one example, and this is not intended in any way to present any political leanings on my part. Consider these books: The Return: Trump's Big 2024 Comeback by Dick Morris and Animal Farm or 1984 by George Orwell. Which book will still be around, be read, and still have relevance in 2030? Although the Morris book might make the best-seller list, it is (and will continue to be) Orwell's that last for years to come. The former will quickly be irrelevant by (or perhaps even before) the 2024 presidential election.

But we can go even farther back in literary history and find books that, although addressing the social or political issues of the times in which they were written, are still relevant even today. The Vicar of Wakefield is but one example.

Perhaps the best such example, however, is the Bible. Written centuries ago, it is still very much relevant today. Although not intended as a science book, it is scientifically accurate. (Just one example is that it stated the existence of ocean currents long before Southerner Matthew Fontaine Maury proved their existence.) Although not intended as a history book, per se, it is historically correct. (Archeologists are regularly discovering the existence of some ancient people mentioned in the Bible but long discounted by unbelieving "experts" or finding various objects or manuscripts that confirm the biblical accounts.)

Most importantly, the Bible accurately describes man's sinful nature and his proneness to evil; predicts accurately the steady moral decline of society; prescribes the only cure for man's problems to be salvation through Jesus Christ, and even addresses such current controversial topics as climate change, with God's promise that "seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease" (Gen. 8:22). And that's only the tip of the iceberg.

So what are the benefits of reading old books, especially the Bible?

  1. They help us understand that people are essentially the same throughout history and even today. Some things never change, including human nature.

  2. They increase our appreciation for the authors' genius and abilities. Reading them increases our vocabulary, strengthens our imagination, and hones our own writing skills as we learn from those authors of proven value.

  3. They show us how important human relationships are, especially the family.

  4. They show us the consequences and rewards of certain behaviors, giving us the chance to avoid the agonies of sin and to imitate good actions so we can reap their rewards. C.S. Lewis said, "We all . . . need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books."

  5. They demonstrate their value by having withstood the tests of time. They never get old. I recall one of the titles in a ten-volume set that was part of the Collier's Encyclopedia that my parents bought when I was a kid: Stories That Never Grow Old. I also recall the words of Christ in Matthew 24:35: "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away." That's an evergreen for sure!

  6. They offer us a window to the past and a lens to the present and future.

  7. They even offer health benefits! According to a study by experts in Liverpool, England (reported by Country Living on March 3, 2020), reading old books "could help to boost your brain power and improve your life satisfaction" by sending "'rocket boosters' to the brain and help those suffering from depression, anxiety, chronic pain and dementia, too."

So, with all those benefits awaiting you, what are you waiting for?! Grab an old book and start reading. A good one to start with might be the Bible, perhaps the most widely available but least read old book on the all-time best-seller list.

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