In recent posts I have recommended some 11th century and 21st century books. Now it’s time to look at books which span the years. These books help us step aside from what Francois Hartog has called “presentism,” allowing us to be challenged by premodern ways of thinking, not so that we can retreat into nostalgic reverence for a non-existent past but so that we can see our own age in perspective. As C. S. Lewis wrote in his introduction to St Athanasius’ ‘On the Incarnation’:
Every age has its own outlook. 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.
Lewis’ argument was a lot subtler than he was sometimes given credit for. He certainly didn’t believe in some mythical Golden Age, but he certainly did believe in the power of old books:
The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.
Lewis’ recommendation was that, after reading a new book, we should not allow ourselves “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.” This remains very good advice. Nonetheless, we might also suggest that there are some modern books which can have the same palliative effect of which Lewis wrote. I am thinking, in particular, of the following:
‘Laurus’ by Eugene Vodolazkin
‘Beside the Ocean of Time’ by George Mackay Brown
‘Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset
‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’ by Walter M. Miller Jr.
‘That Hideous Strength’ by C. S. Lewis himself
Some children’s books – think of Pan in ‘The Wind in the Willows’ and the Phoenix in ‘The Phoenix and the Carpet’
We sometimes need to be reminded that the great conversation is not a monologue: it goes back and forth. So I’ll finish with a remarkable passage from Henry of Huntingdon’s ‘Historia Anglorum’ which he wrote in AD 1135. Towards the end of his book he wrote these words:
Ad uos igitur iam loquar qui in tercio millenario, circa centesimum tricesimum quintum annum, eritis. Cogitate, inquam, quo duenerimus. Dicite, precor, quid nobis profuerit, si magni uel clari fuerimus? Nichil prorsus nisi in Deo claruerimus. Si enim nunc in eo claremus, et uestro tempore clarescemus, cum Domino nostro domini celi et terre, milibus milium qui in celis sunt collaudabiles. Nunc autem qui tanto tempore antequam nascamini de uobis mentionem iam uestro tempore puluis in hoc opere feci, si contigerit – quod valde desiderat anima mea – uestras ut in manus hoc opus meum prodeat, precor ut Dei clementiam inexcogitabilem pro me miserrimo exoretis. Sic et pro uobis orent et impetrent qui quarto uel quinto millenario cum Deo ambulabunt, si generatio mortalium tamdiu protelabitur.
which has been translated by Diane Greenway in her edition of Henry’s book in this way:
Now I speak to you who will be living in the third millennium, around the 135th year. Consider us, who at this moment seem to be renowned, because, miserable creatures, we think highly of ourselves. Reflect, I say, on what has become of us. Tell me, I pray, what gain has it been to us to have been great or famous? We had no fame at all, except in God. For if we are famed now in Him, we shall still be famed in your time, as lords of heaven and earth, worthy of praise with our Lord God, by the thousands of thousands who are in the heavens. I, who will already be dust by your time, have made mention of you in this book, so long before you are to be born, so that if – as my soul strongly desires – it shall come about that this book comes into your hands, I beg you, in the incomprehensible mercy of God, to pray for me, poor wretch. In the same way, may those who will walk with God in the fourth and fifth millennia pray and petition for you, if indeed mortal man survives so long.