Another reason for a liberal arts education is to avoid modern errors. The only way to counteract these errors is to read books, especially old books. Lewis emphasized throughout his life the necessity of reading old books. “Jack was a voracious reader from his early childhood” (Hudson). Joe Walsh, college historian at Magdalen referred to Lewis as the “best-read man I ever met, almost too well read” (Heck, 18). According to Lewis’ diary, in his early years of teaching, he read a book every two days. The number of books he read was not only enormous; the “scope” of his reading was vast. Lewis read poetry, prose, philosophy, novels, drama, opera and history (Hudson).
“Lewis believed that reading great books (especially old ones) was the foundation for any meaningful learning and human growth” (Hudson). Lewis thought the learner should go to the original sources instead of the commentator. This was not a popular idea at his time. Lewis stated that “It has always therefore been one of my main endeavors as a teacher to persuade the young that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful” (Lewis, “Reading Old Books,” 200). If the reader has to choose between reading a new book and an old book, Lewis thought he should read the old book. He thought that reading the old books helps to correct modern errors. Lewis thought each historical period had its own blind spots. “None of us,” Lewis says, “can fully escape that blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books” (Lewis, “Reading Old Books,” 202). Lewis encouraged people to read an old book after each time they read a new book (Reading Old, 201-202).
An additional reason to read old books is because it “confirms” what Lewis calls “Mere Christianity.” The reading of old books on Christian doctrine helps the reader to see what is essential to the Faith and what is not. Lewis was an active participant in what has been called the “Great Conversation.” He thought to be truly educated; an individual must join this conversation. This is similar to the idea of Mortimer Adler, founder of the Great Books movement. The great conversation is a dialogue between writers of different centuries on the Great Ideas. James V. Schall has stated that a college student who didn’t study Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas while in college, did not receive an education.
Lewis thought it was not only important to read the great books of Western Civilization, but to read them again and again. Some of his favorite authors were Milton, Dante, George McDonald, Virgil and other great authors of antiquity. He believed that the rereading of books was one of the marks of a literary person. Lewis, in An Experiment in Criticism, distinguishes the literary person from the non-literary person
The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers ‘I’ve read it already’ to be a
conclusive argument against reading a work. We have all known women who remembered a novel so dimly that they had to stand half an hour in the library skimming through it before they were certain they had once read it. But the moment they became certain, they rejected it immediately. It was for them dead, like a burnt-out match, an old rail-way ticket or yesterday’s paper; they had already used it. Those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life (2).
A great book is a book that requires more than one reading. Every time a great book is read, the reader gets something new out of it. For example, I have read large portions of The Summa Theologica multiple times over the last twenty years. I still feel I have not been able to get to the bottom of it. I do think I understand it a little better each time I read it. “For Lewis, reading, reading well, reading great books and rereading them again and again, was the first step in the life of a true learner” (Hudson).
A second characteristic of a true learner is a grasp of history. “The educated man,” Lewis noted, “habitually almost without noticing it, sees the present as something that grows out of a long perspective of centuries” (Lewis, Reading Old Books, 241). Lewis thought it was important for the learner to have a solid knowledge of history. This would help him to see the errors of his own period. Each period had its own particular errors. Since we cannot know the future, the only available comparison with the present is the past. Lewis states, “A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age” (58-59).