Ludwig Wittgenstein is (was) my favorite philosopher (by far). He loved classical music but he wouldn’t listen to any music that was composed after the 18th century. The reason he gave was that he could smell the oil of machinery in any music that was written from the 1800′s onward.
That’s profound. You might think that the industrial revolution had nothing to do with classical music. How could you possibly “smell the oil of machinery” by listening to a piece of classical music written in the late 1800′s?
Wittgenstein’s point was that exposure to industrialization changes us so deeply that it influences everything we do. Even things that are seemingly unrelated like creating art.
Well, if there’s any truth to that at all (I grant that it might just be a tad overstated), then it would probably be a good idea for us to be exposed to thoughtful people who lived and wrote prior to the industrial revolution. In other words, read books that don’t have the aroma of the oil of machinery.
Reading books from pre-industrial times gives us a perspective on things that we just can’t get anywhere else. I can pretend what it might be like to have lived in colonial New England. But I’ll always bring my own 21st experiences along with me somewhere in my subconscious thoughts.
But men like Jonathan Edwards and John Cotton and Thomas Shepard didn’t have to play a role in order to enter into the mindset of someone who lived in colonial New England because that was their daily reality. And that’s a perspective on life that I want to be exposed to.
That’s one of the main reasons I’ve spent so many years studying the Puritans. Because in logging those hours with those pre-industrial men of faith I’m gaining access to insights about God and the world and myself that I can’t get from authors writing today.
Which is not to say that modern authors have nothing to say. I want their perspective too. But my point is that modern writers are writing from the perspective of a world that I myself inhabit. Writers from say, the 17th century are providing me with a gateway into a world that would otherwise be locked to me.
C. S. Lewis suggested that a good ratio would be to read two old books for every one new book. That sounds about right to me. if we did that, I think we’d find ourselves benefitting from the wisdom of our elders and viewing the world just a little differently.
And as a side benefit, we mind find ourselves resurrecting those really excellent pronouns like Thee and Thou and that very fine preposition, betwixt.
Perhaps as a follow-up to this point I’ll post some of my own personal favorite “old books” in the next installment. What about you? Any old books that have shaped you in significant ways?