I couldn’t agree more with the premise of this great article from the American Conservative, except the first statement as I love reading new books also.
“I hate to read new books.”
So begins William Hazlitt’s essay “On Reading Old Books.” The title will remind readers of C.S. Lewis’s similarly named but much more well known essay “On the Reading of Old Books,” which originally served as the introduction to a translation of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. But beyond the general injunction to read old masters, the two essays have very little (though more than nothing) in common. Where Lewis focuses on the dangers of contemporary prejudice and the atmospheric contamination, as it were, of false assumptions—both of which we can mitigate in effect by temporarily displacing ourselves in time and space through reading—Hazlitt stresses the importance of older writers. He does this because (1) there is a greater likelihood that they are worth reading; (2) they are essential to the personal development of the individual; and (3) they are high-water marks of formal and stylistic virtuosity from which something can be learned despite philosophical disagreement.
First, it is a truism that old books that are still read have stood the test of time (there are others that deserve to have done so but have been forgotten; that is a different story, touched on here). As Hazlitt says, with nice understatement, “I do not think altogether the worse of a book for having survived the author a generation or two.” As Lewis would write over a century later, “A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it.” But where Lewis emphasizes ignorance, Hazlitt stresses the calm and serenity of opening an old volume: “[T]he dust and smoke and noise of modern literature have nothing in common with the pure, silent air of immortality.” This may sound romantic, or even absurd, but I confess to having had precisely this sensation myself on many occasions.
There are, of course, good new books and bad old books. But the sheer volume of what is published—an issue since the invention of the printing press, even if more insistent now given the rise of new technologies—makes the work of winnowing wheat from chaff difficult, and time is finite. (Lest I be misunderstood, I think this a happy development in most respects, although attended by some of the challenges Hazlitt notes. Indeed, without such technologies, Hazlitt would have had access to far fewer books, as would we.) As Hazlitt remarks:
[I]n…turning to a well-known author, there is not only an assurance that my time will not be thrown away, or my palate nauseated with the most insipid or vilest trash,—but I shake hands with, and look an old, tried, and valued friend in the face,—compare notes, and chat the hours away.
Can a value be assigned to nurturing an intellectual friendship, albeit a somewhat imaginary one, with a Vergil, a Shakespeare, an Augustine? Surely not. I shall return to this point below.
Hazlitt’s perspective is, then, somewhat different from Lewis’, whose main concern is the characteristic “blindness” of every age as with respect to its own faults (“Every age…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”). Where Hazlitt is pragmatic and personal, Lewis focuses on the ethical and the social. Both are correct.
Second, Hazlitt gives a beautiful description of the way in which our early reading can help to form who we are for the rest of our lives. The books we love while young contribute to our development as individuals in no more imaginary a way than learning to ride a bike or the first day of middle school does. The enjoyment they yield, in other words, is not empty: these books play a part in the formation of our memories, the pattern we discern as our lives unfold, and therefore help to constitute our very selves. Hazlitt says this explicitly: “In reading a book which is an old favourite with me (say the first novel I ever read) I not only have the pleasure of imagination and of a critical relish of the work, but the pleasures of memory added to it.” In fact, re-reading one’s favorite books can serve in some ways as dreamlike time travel, or even an otherwise impossible bilocation, in which we can—for a brief moment—simultaneously put one foot in our past and another in our present. As he puts it:
It recalls the same feelings and associations which I had in first reading it, and which I can never have again in any other way. Standard productions of this kind are links in the chain of our conscious being. They bind together the different scattered divisions of our personal identity. They are land-marks and guides in our journey through life. They are pegs and loops on which we can hang up, or from which we can take down, at pleasure, the wardrobe of a moral imagination, the relics of our best affections, the tokens and records of our happiest hours.
Retrieved August 11, 2018 from https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/the-hedonism-of-reading-good-books/