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Why Read Old Books?

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Under “progressivism,” anything old is suspect and if there is the slightest hint of incorrect thinking about it, then it certainly must be denounced if not destroyed.

In today’s Martin Center article, Professor Matthew Stewart of Boston University examines this phenomenon in his review of Alan Jacobs’ book Breaking Bread With the Dead. Stewart is lukewarm toward it.

He agrees with Jacobs that there is much we can and should learn in old books: “There is no surprise in learning that such reading makes us deeper, fuller persons, and more humble. Ex post facto moralizing comes easily; working to see things through the eyes of those who lived before us, to understand the confines and dilemmas that they faced, to acknowledge their inability to foresee all consequences—this takes patience, effort, and good will. Reading old books develops ‘personal density’ and provides ‘a balm for agitated souls.’”

Unfortunately, Stewart finds that Breaking Bread doesn’t do enough to combat the toxic view that progressives have for the past. Stewart writes, “The author’s rhetoric is strikingly temperate for a book of advocacy, and his argument is carefully framed to avoid political polemics.” Jacobs, Stewart argues, too readily excuses the attack on the past by saying that modern life compels us to engage in “informational triage.”

Stewart is not satisfied with that. “Out of necessity,’ he writes, “we turn away from much information, but the question as to what we choose to set aside (or choose never to pick up) and why we make those particular choices is left hanging. Indeed, how does ‘informational triage’ account for the hypersensitivity and overreaction exemplified by throwing a book in the trash? Is the impulse to bin so very far away from the impulse to burn?”

The problem with “progressivism” is that its adherents feel morally superior to those who came before them and that attitude threatens our structure of knowledge.

So, why read old books? Stewart concludes that we should “to illuminate the present and show a path to the future.”

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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