On Giants' Shoulders

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Enjoyment of Old Books

In a world where new books are flooding libraries and bookstores on a regular basis, some people no doubt find it odd that I read so many old books. They are not necessarily old in a physical sense, quite often they are reprints with shiny new covers and crisp new pages. I do enjoy the feel of a physically old book and I definitely agree with Helene Hanff (author of 84 Charing Cross Road) that it is a true pleasure to read a book someone else has read before you and read the notes that they have jotted down. What I really enjoy, however, is what the books themselves have to say. I love the way that they open up a world long gone, the way that I can seem to sit like a little child listening to the tale of a great grandparent. The old books do more than just give a picture of the 15th century, or the 8th century, or the 13th century, or even the 19th century. Often they demonstrate values and concepts that the last century and the present century seem to have minimized and even dismissed in a headlong race towards an illusive progress. Frequently their very language forces the reader to slow down his reading rate and in doing so slow the rest of the pace of his life as well.

I have just begun reading The Wood Beyond the World, by William Morris. One of the first things I noted was the language. It is lofty and must have seemed somewhat archaic even in Morris's own time. Yet the stately way that the tale is told is appropriate to the material. As I read some of the earliest descriptive passages in the book, I understood how Morris was an influence on writers such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. This book, I realized quickly, would make an excellent read aloud for children who enjoy Tolkien's work, although it probably would be a bit difficult for younger listeners.

Here's a bit of description from an early chapter just to give you a flavor of the book: "So Walter did on his foul-weather raiment, and went up on the quarter-deck, and there indeed was a change of days; for the sea was dark and tumbling mountain-high, and the white-horses were running down the valleys thereof, and the clouds drave low over all, and bore a scud of rain along with them, and though there was but a rag of sail on her, the ship flew before the wind rolling a great wash of water from bulwark to bulwark."

After listening to this your children might be using thees and thous in their speech and playing at sailing in an old fashioned ship, but I suspect that they would also be nourished on the journey to being "men with chests" (or women as the case may be) as C.S. Lewis called them.

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