Thursday, June 20, 2013

Anything New?

I just returned from the Charlotte Mason Institute conference at Ferrum College. One of the distinct privileges of that gathering is the stimulating conversation with like-minded CM educators, whether casually at meals, in the accidental meetings on the sidewalk outdoors, or in the deliberate setting of scheduled chats centering on particular themes. During one of the latter sessions, we tackled the subject of new books. Do books have to be "old" to be worth reading, are there any "good" new books, and how can we offer contemporary books to children to interest the "modern" child?

Naturally, these questions provoke further questions. Are old books truly out of date? Are they irrelevant?Does the "modern" child need contemporary authors to kindle his interest? Are the old books and the new books equal in quality and do their contemporary ideas feed the soul and imagination as richly as those that have been tested and tried by the minds of readers who have found them worthy in past generations?

In reviewing the last ten books I have read aloud to my boys, (including such notables as Johnny Tremain, King of the Golden RiverThe Long Winter) I believe the newest book among them (Understood Betsy) is  at least 50 years old. I read all these books when I was a child. Before I left for the conference, I asked my nine-year-old what he would recommend parents do to encourage their children to read and his young  opinion was, "just tell them to read the books you loved when you were a kid, Mom."

But perhaps he is accustomed to my selections and we are out of touch. I am of the old-fashioned opinion  that one of the multitudinous reasons children of today don't engage with current books is that, though these books are "contemporary," they don't really speak to the soul as readily, and though they attempt to entertain the twenty-first century mind, they more often bore it in that attempt. Further, I think it is also highly possible that, because of current attitudes toward children, authors unwittingly oversimplify plots and  character development, attempt too strenuously to "relate," to their contemporary lifestyle, and thus, miss the  fact that children today, though they touch, taste, and handle different things externally, are unchanged as  persons. Indeed, it is the failure to consider the personhood of a child that is the most treacherous mistake  any modern author makes. Relevance is esteemed too highly, and consequently, children are demeaned. My  argument is that today's children are unchanged in their nature. They are still born in the image of God with all  the inherent needs and characteristics that God-given nature encompasses. Namely, they have power to learn;  innate curiosity to learn and grow; are drawn to all that is beautiful, good and true; and will hunger and thirst after all the same things that have fed and nourished children throughout the ages.

Forgive me if I listen to older voices than mine in reflecting on this question of whether old books speak to a child of today or not.

"The problem with contemporary books is that friends and foes alike share so many common assumptions, assumptions we don't even know we share." -- C.S. Lewis

"We should read books from the past. Books from the future would be just as good, they're just a lot harder to get. Therefore, we ought to enter into the conversations of the many centuries past so that we can balance our own thinking." -- C. S. Lewis

"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. All contemporary writers share to some extent and contemporary outlook- even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it... We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century- the blindness about which posterity will ask, "But how could they have
thought that?" - lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is  untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. 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." (From an essay titled "On the Reading of Old Books," by C. S. Lewis)

"You can find all the new ideas in the old books, only there you will find them balanced, kept in their place, and sometimes contradicted and overcome by other and better ideas. The great writers did not neglect a fad because they had not thought of it, but because they had thought of it and of all of the answers to it as well."  -- G.K. Chesterton

And from a writer who is still living:

"When we get outside of our time, we begin to discover the wisdom of the ages." -- George Grant

I appeal to these wiser thinkers than I in defending the use of old books, even for the new child. However, my thinking, I pray, is not shaped by these authors whose books I cherish and revere, as much as to the Author of Life, who put His own divine life into every living child of today, whose Book is the oldest and most living one of all, and who commanded us: "Unless you become like a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven."
I encourage you who love old books not to feel out of step, out of date, or old-fashioned at all. Continue to read, to offer, and to give as gifts to your children, your young relations and friends, the books that have stood the test of time. They may not speak to contemporary issues directly, but in addressing the deep-felt needs of the soul with the timeless wisdom of the past, they will meet the heart questions and concerns of persons always.

For the joy of reading,



  1. With you , Liz.
    With you at the conference and in the same boat of books! ( Messing around in boats!)

    1. Bonnie,

      Boats and books may not suit one another well, but when it starts sinking, I'm definitely tossing the new ones out.

  2. Liz, are you familiar with ND Wilson (Ashtown Burials Series), Megan Whalen Turner (The Thief, Queen of Attolia) or Andrew Peterson (The Wingfeather Saga)? My husband has been reading these series to my kids over the last year and is loving them - I bought the first two series based on the recommendations of Valerie Jacobsen (Andrew Peterson books were highly recommended elsewhere). `So you have an opinion on themÉ

    I don't mean to be contradictory as I love old books - we are using Ambleside and I have started collecting books from the "Golden Age of Literature (1935-1970), but I am wondering whether you are suggesting that there is nothing valuable being produced today or is it that they are just not of the same quality?

    1. Dear Lisa,

      I do not think it is "contradictory" to ask questions. Rather, that is thinking. Thinking, I believe, was the point I was trying to make in that rambling post and I am sorry if I was unclear.

      I have written extensively before about why the quality in children's literature has deteriorated. I DO NOT believe there are NO good books being written today. In fact, a summer project I have going is to read several "new" books that have been recommended to me. I will add these to my list, especially as I value Valerie's recommendations very
      much myself. I promise that if I am able to acquire them on audio or in Braille and read any of these, I will write my review of them.

      I believe I was arguing, along with Lewis and Chesterton, that our view of our modern day becomes warped if all we are exposed to is current thought, indeed, we understand our times best when viewed from the perspective of past thinkers. This is why I would read 50 old books to one new one.

      Thanks for the great question.


  3. Oops, that was supposed to be "Do" you have an opinion on them...