Sunday, September 12, 2010

New Books or Old Books

Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this. Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The American Scholar" 1837

Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. C.S. Lewis, Introduction to On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius, 1944

So, two eminent scholars seem to disagree! Why am I not surprised. Emerson says read the modern books. The generation right before you, after they observed the world and digested it, shared the knowledge they had for my generation. C.S. Lewis says not so; read first the old books, then if you have time and inclination read the modern as well.

This came up because, at my last foraging in a thrift store, I found the Athanasius book. I might not have bothered with it except I have an interest in the early Christian writings, and thought this slim paperback would be a welcome addition to my reference library. Also, in 2005 I first read a seminary paper by my son-in-law on Athanasius' de Incarnatione Verbi Dei. I didn't understand it, put it down, picked it up again almost exactly a year later, didn't understand it, put it down again, etc., until finally I was able to glean enough from it to understand it (I think) the discussion and write a review. When I saw the book I thought, "I've read about this writing of Athanasius; now I have the chance to read it in modern translation."

When I got it home I read the Introduction. C.S. Lewis' words stood in stark contract to what I remembered reading in Emerson. "The American Scholar" is actually the only essay of RWE's I've gotten all the way through. Others I've picked up and put down, but that one I really liked. Emerson's words had seemed true to me. That's why every American generation writes another biography or two of George Washington, and why the shelves of our local libraries are constantly rotating books, selling off those more than fifty years old and replacing them with newer distillations of the same subject.

Lewis has more to say about this than does Emerson. He goes on to discuss the importance of reading the original sources. Commentaries on Plato are more confusing than Plato, he writes. Just read Plato. He's not so hard to understand in modern translation. Since that is exactly what I am attempting to do with the Athanasius book, I could understand Lewis' remarks. And, as a writer I'd better figure out how to write materials for the next generation while at the same time directing them to the old books.

We'll see how this goes. I've read about fifteen of the 95 pages of Athanasius, and sort of understand what he's saying. I haven't gotten to the meat of his argument yet. Of course, when he began by saying, "In our former book", I had to divert to various on-line sources to see what that book was and what it is all about. That led me to some letters he wrote. That led me to some biographical materials, and even a compilation of his works. The tentacles of research are at work.

It is taking me much concentration to read De Inarnatione. I can't do it while also watching television, or even while that noise is on in the house. I can't read it if I'm also thinking of articles to write or blog posts to post or bills to pay or work issues the morning will bring. So I may not finish it quickly, may even put it aside and go to some other book in my reading pile. We shall see. The experiment is on.

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