“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.
This is something I’ve found myself thinking about more lately. I turned 30 last December so there’s just a greater awareness of the shortness of time I have. I also just wrapped up work on my book so I find myself with more reading time. And I’m constantly struggling with what to read–something new I’ve been wanting to pick up for awhile or whether to revisit an old favorite. Eric’s thoughts in that essay are well worth your time.