The Old Books
Dr. James Emery White
- 2016 Nov 14
The New York Times recently ran an article on the twelve books everyone should read in their twenties. It was a thoroughly “New York Times” kind of list. As described, “To read them all is to learn about wartime, race in America, growing up feeling like you’re different, how cities are built and lived in, the power of imagination and much more.”
Yes, that was true and, I might add, “from a very specific angle.”
For fiction, they recommended:
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Beloved by Toni Morrison
His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
For non-fiction titles, they suggested:
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
The Power Broker by Robert Caro
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
And then, from the “graphic memoirs” genre:
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Their list, as many lists are, was thought-provoking. There are many good titles on it, having read most of them myself. But I couldn’t help but notice a rather glaring editorial decision.
Where were the old books?
When it comes to the actual books we open it is very important to be selective. As Schopenhauer once suggested, “If a man wants to read good books, he must make a point of avoiding bad ones; for life is short, and time and energy limited.”
So what are the good books? Let’s go further. If you are going to suggest a list of twelve books to be sure to read during one of the more pivotal and developmental decades of anyone’s life, what are the great books?
“There never was very much doubt in anybody’s mind about which the masterpieces were,” wrote Robert Maynard Hutchins. “They were the books that had endured and that the common voice of mankind called the finest creations, in writing, of the Western mind.” The great books are those writings that have most shaped history and culture, civilization and science, politics and economics. They prompt us to think about the great issues of life.
C.S. Lewis simply called them the “old” books.
Actual collections of such writings have been attempted. Hutchins, along with Mortimer Adler, compiled a set that went from Homer to Freud, over 25 centuries, including the works of Plato and Aristotle, Virgil and Augustine, Shakespeare and Pascal, Locke and Rousseau, Kant and Hegel, Darwin and Dostoevsky.
Charles W. Eliot, who served as president of Harvard for 40 years, dreamed of a five-foot shelf of books that would provide an education to anyone who would spend even 15 minutes a day reading them. His vision took form when he became the editor of the 50-volume Harvard Classics (1909).
Critiques can be made of such reading programs, both in scope and intent, but at least they propel the reader into what Hutchins calls the “Great Conversation.” Or as Descartes would suggest, the reading of such books is like a conversation with the noblest men of past centuries, “nay a carefully studied conversation, in which they reveal to us none but the best of their thoughts.”
Lewis went further, arguing that the old books were needed to confront our current age’s perspective. “Every age has its own outlook,” Lewis contended. “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.”
You can find my own list of books everyone should read in the appendix to my little book, A Mind for God (InterVarsity Press). And one thing you can be assured of: While newer books like Toni Morrison’s Beloved are most certainly on the list,
… the vast majority are much, much older.
James Emery White
“12 Book to Read in Your 20s,” The New York Times, October 25, 2016, read online.
Arthur Schopenhauer, “On Some Forms of Literature,” The Art of Literature.
Robert Maynard Hutchins, The Great Conversation.
C.S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books,” God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics.
Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method, I.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.