Summer reading with 3D glassesWritten by Subby Szterszky
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“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.” – C.S. Lewis
For many of us, preparing for summer includes curating our reading lists. We build our stack of books filled with new titles, recommended reads and bestsellers. But what if we were to heed C.S. Lewis’ advice and include some old classics?
What Lewis wanted was to help us balance our literary diet. He believed old books were valuable because they were from different times that didn’t share our cultural blind spots. As such, they could give us a sense of distance and added perspective on our own culture, like a pair of literary 3D glasses.
With that in mind, here’s a short list to augment your summer reading, written by a bunch of people who are long gone. Some wrote as Christians, some didn’t, but their words continue to resonate and influence.
Homer: the Iliad, the Odyssey
The literature of the Western World essentially begins with Homer. These two epic poems recount the sweeping climax of the Trojan War and the adventures of one of its heroes on his journey home. They’ve influenced virtually all dramatic storytelling since, as well as being the earliest source for our knowledge of Greek mythology and civilization. The Iliad is generally considered the greater literary work, although the Odyssey is a more accessible story for modern readers.
Plato: the Republic, the Symposium
The twin foundational pillars of Western civilization are Judeo-Christian ethics and Ancient Greek philosophy, the two often intertwining for better or worse. Plato, together with his teacher Socrates and pupil Aristotle, stands at the pinnacle of Classical Greek thought. His dialogues, the greatest of which is the Republic, can challenge modern readers while also showing us where many of our cultural ideas came from. For a shorter introduction to Plato, try the Symposium.
Saint Augustine: Confessions, City of God
Saint Augustine is the most significant figure in church history between the New Testament and the Reformation. Next to the Scriptures, his writings have exerted the greatest influence on both Protestant and Catholic theology. His Confessions are a series of prayers combining autobiography, devotion and development of core Christian doctrines. The much longer and more formal City of God discusses the nature and relationship of the earthly and heavenly kingdoms.
Niccolo Machiavelli: The Prince
Machiavelli’s name has become synonymous with ruthless pragmatism. His brief but controversial political treatise, The Prince, is a fascinating look at the birth of modern realpolitik, of abandoning ideals and morals in favour of doing whatever it takes to gain and maintain power. Nevertheless, there’s also a fair amount of prudent observation and practical advice – taken with discernment – for those interested in politics or business.
Martin Luther: On the Freedom of a Christian
This short work by the great reformer, written as an explanatory letter to the pope, distills the central Scriptural truth that Luther rediscovered: justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Luther discusses the relationship between law and grace, as well as the nature of the freedom in Christ we enjoy because of the Gospel. An essential exposition of the truth upon which the church stands or falls, as Luther put it.
William Shakespeare: Much Ado about Nothing
Shakespeare’s plays combine a keen insight into the human condition with a beauty of language unmatched before or since. Summer is a great time to explore his comedies, my favourite being Much Ado about Nothing. Joss Whedon said that with this play, Shakespeare simultaneously invented and deconstructed the romantic comedy. It might also be a nice idea to watch one of the excellent modern film adaptations, either by Whedon or Kenneth Branagh.
Francis Schaeffer: Art and the Bible
Schaeffer arguably did more to help the church engage with culture, philosophy and the arts than any other popular Christian writer of the twentieth century. Art and the Bible is a pair of short essays that present a compelling summary of Schaeffer’s case that art is a legitimate and valuable pursuit for the Christian. Beyond its potential use in evangelism, art should be appreciated and enjoyed for its beauty and creativity, to the glory of God.
C.S. Lewis: Mere Christianity, Till We Have Faces
Since this list was inspired by Lewis, it’s fitting to conclude with a couple of his works, which have come to qualify as “old books.” Lewis is best known for his Narnia series as well as the satirical Screwtape Letters. However, Mere Christianity is probably the best introduction to Lewis’ clear, witty yet profound defense of the Christian faith. Till We Have Faces, Lewis’ lyrical retelling of the Ancient Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, is a fine example of mature literary art from a Christian author.
A few concluding words
There’s quite a bit of variety on this list in terms of time period, length of work and content. Naturally no one would be expected to read everything on here in one summer. It’s offered more as a literary smorgasbord: pick a couple of titles that might interest you, or maybe even just one, and try it.
Older books can be challenging to read, even in a good translation, but Lewis would urge upon us that it’s worth the effort. At the very least, we’ll enrich our reading experience via exposure to literary styles we don’t usually encounter. More important, as Lewis suggested, looking through the eyes of authors from earlier cultures will give us a deeper, fuller perspective on our own.
Note: The contents of the books cited in this article are not necessarily endorsed by Focus on the Family Canada. The works are generally considered literary classics and commended as such to the discerning reader.
© 2016 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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