It’s a cool autumn evening and a group of men are gathering around a large wooden table in the scenic gardens of the Stone Brewery in San Diego, California. They gather as they have many times before, looking forward to an evening of good food and fellowship, but most of all, to another great night of discussion. Most of them are not formal students of literature, but own several marked-up copies of some of its finest works.
For the last month, they’ve been reading C.S. Lewis’ classic, Till We Have Faces. Tonight’s discussion will weave through themes of beauty, loss, and sacrifice as they discuss Lewis’ retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche’s forbidden love. Even though many of them weren’t aware of this book (or the myth) just a few months prior, they’ve now come together to discuss their thoughts, opinions, and questions on the work and how Lewis retold the story originally written in the 2nd century by Platonicus.
There is a shortage of nights like these and groups like this one; people from various walks of life who gather together to consider the great books. In our day of consuming ad infinitum, the 24-hour news cycle and streaming entertainment, we are in danger of losing our taste for these slower, deeper pleasures.
The argument has been well-made that there are many benefits to reading classic literature. C.S. Lewis wrote a whole essay encouraging the reading of old books. He believed every age has its own outlook, “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.” Those who read outside of their times are often able to see beyond the spirit of the age in which they live. As Lewis continued, “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.” And so, he advised, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” Today, I’m afraid Lewis wouldn’t be able to assume that even new books are being read.
Old books are often challenging and require the time and commitment of readers who would glean their depths. It’s hard to get those who don’t already love to read to stay the course through a demanding classic no matter how strong the recommendation, but if people know there will be an opportunity for discussion and fellowship, many will finish the book just so they have something to contribute. The promise of a night of hearty discussion around food, drink, and fire can often convince the most disinterested to give it a try.
Fine literature has a way of sticking with us and encouraging new patterns of thinking. The lessons of literature are rarely obvious to us at first, but must be mined through patient thought and consideration. Much like the Scriptures, there are rewards for those who take the time to meditate on the meaning the author has carefully placed inside the story. There is no better place to draw these out than in a good discussion. Dialogue and conversation have a unique ability to show us how to meditate; to look at things in new ways and to see things we didn’t see at first glance.
A good discussion will often shape individual perspectives. Often a night of talking about a book can take initial opinions and, through sharing and listening to other perspectives, stretch and deepen them. The best discussions can take a book scheduled to be deleted from the cache of our minds and move it to the long-term memory as our understanding of its value deepens.
Isn’t this striving to listen to and understand different points of view what loving our neighbor is all about? That we learn to see the world and our lives in it from the perspective of another of God’s creatures. We can only serve one another as we learn humbly to put ourselves in each other’s shoes and see the world through each other’s eyes. The best discussions often leave us more empathetic, humbler, and more loving; the very virtues missing from much of today’s public discourse.
Literature can also build character. Educators are again coming to see that moral character is better developed through stories than by a list of rules hung on the classroom wall. Many schools are beginning to teach character development as a subject just as important as math and science. You’ll know them by their dogmatic commitment to student’s spending time reading and hearing great literature. Good stories often demonstrate the consequences of both good and bad character, and encourage readers to strive to do good.
Discussing literature can also help us in our approach to Scripture. God’s Word does not come merely as a book of dos and don’ts, but most often is presented as stories that point to the grander narrative of how God is moving to save his people in history. Leland Ryken, in The Christian Imagination, observes, “The Bible is not a theological outline with proof texts attached. It is an anthology of literature” (27-28). And so, if we would grow in our knowledge of Scripture, one strategy should certainly be to learn how literature works.
Several years ago, a respected mentor challenged me to find something life-giving and find others to do it with in community. A few month later, a group of my friends gathered together to discuss Frankenstein. Afterwards, several said they would have never guessed that talking about books could be so enriching. We met monthly for the next several years, each time with a new book ready to discuss.
If your soul could use a new exercise regime and your frustrated with the contemporary blind spots, perhaps consider getting some friends together to discuss an old book.
Note: For book recommendations, this website has synthesized 128 “best of” book lists.
Andrew Hess is the director of content at the White Horse Inn and editor of corechristianity.com. He formerly served as the editor of churchleaders.com. His writing has been featured on The Gospel Coalition and Focus on the Family. He lives in San Diego with his wife Jen and they recently welcomed their first child. Connect with Andrew on Twitter @AndrewWHess.