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How To Improve Yourself By Reading Really Old Books


Just about everyone should read more books. We all know it, we just need to do it. Thinking about it in advance will help it happen and be fruitful for our minds and souls.

Go ahead, write these three words and the commanding punctuation marks on the palm of your hand: Read. More. Books. Don’t just read any sort of books. Anyone can do that. Be a discerning reader and ensure your discernment includes the following two criteria, otherwise it’s not discerning.

Read Physical Books

First, read physical books, the ones with pages, those you can smell, feel, and tenderly rub up against your cheek like you would a fluffy stuffed koala bear. Close your eyes and enjoy the physicality of the thing. That’s a book.

A Kindle is not a book. An iPad is not a book. Your phone is not a book. Those are for reading The Federalist, which you will also do more of in 2019. A book is a book, and only they provide the kind of transcendent experience required to truly savor and digest the golden, life-enriching collection of words the great writers provide us.

Comics books will not do either. That is mostly looking, not so much reading, even though words are involved. Graphic novels are not reading. They are television cartoons on a page. True graphic novels are “Lolita,” “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “Madame Bovary,” “Tropic of Capricorn,” that sort of thing. Read at your own risk. But at least they’re books.

Don’t even get me started on business books. I don’t care who moved your cheese and neither should you. It’s gone. Get over it. If you must read a business book, as in you will be fired from your job and your babies will go without food if you don’t, it is acceptable to read those on a Kindle.

Read Old Books

Second, and equally as important, is this: read old books. Old books are not those from the 1980s. Not even the 1880s. I’m talking pre-Columbian as a general ballpark, give or take a few hundred years. Newer is seldom better. Write that in the palm of your other hand. Old books are old for a reason.

It goes like this. Humanity has been exploring ideas, telling stories, investigating human life, culture, and the natural world since the beginning of time. Somewhere along the way, folks started putting the best ideas, stories, and investigations onto materials they could keep to read over and over again and share with others. The really, really good ones got copied like mad and shared all over. They went viral before viral was a thing. No small number have survived to this very day, never having gone out of print, for this simple reason: bibliographical Darwinism. Survival of the fittest.

With time, books tend to stand or fall on their own merits, which reminds me of a good story. Someone once asked Flannery O’Connor (a modern author, but an old soul so she counts as old!) if literature teachers should do more to help their students get published. She shot back like a pistol that from her vantage point there were far too many best-sellers that should have been prevented by a good teacher.

Old books stay with us today because they are good. Really, really old books stay with us because they are great. It is good to read great books. C.S. Lewis, a fanatic for the old books, tells us why. “If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight, you will often not see the real bearing of what is said.” The greatest discussions of the biggest truths of humanity started at about 5:30 in the morning in the span of human history and most of us are joining it about 3:45 or 4 in the afternoon. Lewis says that if one could only read the old or the new, “I would advise him to read the old.”

Think of it this way. You are arranging a fancy dinner this Saturday evening for a group of close friends with one of two special guests. One has read all the New York Times’ best-sellers from the last two years, and your friends have the entire evening to hear about what they’ve learned. The other spent the last two years reading 50 of the greatest books of the ancient and classical worlds.

I need not even ask which person you and your guests would choose. One of them will only be able to tell you about the books and little else. The other will tell you about the books, but also about the world, virtue, truth, human development and depravity, the rise and fall of nations, the initiation and advancement of ideas, and the nature of culture. You picked the second guest because she will not just be knowledgeable, but scads more interesting and wiser. Read really old books.

For the last month, I’ve been reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Bros K,” as my youngest daughter refers to it. She demanded I take it up, so I did. It is not a really old book, although the used edition I got off Amazon is from 1950. I love it. But it has stood the test of time, appearing in 1880 and remaining in print ever since.

That is nothing like Aristotle’s, Homer’s, Virgil’s, or Plato’s works remaining in heavy rotation long before Jesus walked the earth. It’s nothing like the writings from the fathers of the Early Christian Church, which is what I’ve been reading through the last ten years. It was these thinkers (and doers) who made irreplaceable contributions to the founding of the world- and history-changing Christian church. If this part of world history and human development interests you, I will conclude by introducing you to a few of the very old books of these very old writers.

Books of the Christian Church

Beyond reading the most enduring and best-selling books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John––and of Paul, Peter, Timothy, and company––one should read Bishop Clement’s letter to the church at Corinth. Although it is not part of the canon of Scripture, it enjoyed serious study and circulation by the early fathers of the church. It was under serious consideration for the New Testament, although nixed because Clement, the third Bishop of Rome, was not an apostle. Beyond the canonical writings, Clement’s is the earliest existing writing from the early church, written around the year 96.

Eusebius gives us another must-read in the first telling (beyond the Acts of the Apostles) of the development and growth of the Christian church. He tells us of the importance of Clement’s letter, that “from the very first, it had been customary to read it in church” on the Lord’s Day. Being able to take up Clement today allows us to sit and listen to what the earliest Christians regularly had read to them for edification and instruction. By comparison, it also reveals the elegance of Paul’s writings. Clement was a better pastor than writer. It’s an absolute treasure to have such books available to us. How could we not take them in?

But there’s a treat even better than Clement. These are the seven poised and colorful letters of Ignatius, a student of John the Apostle and the bishop of Antioch. They are written to the churches of Ephesus, Magnesia (a town near Ephesus), Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, Smyrna, and finally a personal letter to a fellow bishop and student of John, the man Polycarp. These are pastoral letters of encouragement that Ignatius wrote as he was being escorted from Antioch to Rome under a duty of Roman guards. His destination was the lions’ jaws for public entertainment. This dramatic context makes these letters all the more moving.

Finally, Athanasius’s “On the Incarnation” is a major early work that played an incalculable role in navigating and establishing the essential orthodox Christian position on whether Christ, as an actual man, could also be fully God. (Spoiler alert: He was and is.) The edition I’m reading features an introductory essay by Lewis on the essential value of this work as well as his praise of old books in general, from which the above quotes came.

If you want to jump into the early fathers, you can do no better than to avail yourself of any number of volumes from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press’s Popular Patristics Series. They are beautiful collection of books, physically and editorially. If you want direction on the larger body of must-reads from the ancient world, you will find that help here, here, here, and here.

So, the facts of the matter are this. Good people read actual, physical books, and good people become better people by reading the really old books now and then. So there you go. Tolle lege.