On Reading Old Books Because They’re Great

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I set myself a goal of reading one old book a month in 2020, and this month it’s Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. I’m only a quarter of the way through it, here on the 21st day of the month, partly because I was traveling and in conference the first full week of the month, and partly because it’s a very long novel — about 1,000 pages. It’s going to spill over into February, no doubt.

That means I’m just getting started toward my 2020 reading goal and I’m already behind. So maybe I should just pack it in. I could always take the time-honored step, and give up on my New Year’s resolution before the end of January. It’d hardly be the first time anyone did that!

Not a chance, though — for at least two reasons.

1. Because It’s Good

Dickens is good reading. Really good. It’s not page-turning, non-stop action, but that’s okay. If I wanted that I’d read Dan Brown. Okay, that was a bit rude to all the real authors who’ve written real page-turners I’ve genuinely enjoyed. But there are more ways to write enjoyable fiction than by pushing it at breakneck pace.

I’m not worried about whether Dickens’ plot will develop. I don’t need to worry; Dickens has plenty of other virtues worth savoring slowly. He can describe a scene to make you feel like you’re there. Read the first two pages of Chapter One to see what I mean. Or simply listen as he speaks of “Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.”

His characters are alive enough you could almost touch them. He introduces Mrs. Piper as one who “has a good deal to say, chiefly in parentheses and without punctuation, but not much to tell.” Hemingway would have said, “She talked a lot but said little.” Hemingway had his virtues, but Dickens had a better sense of humor. Especially when you see the rest of the page, filled with her talking chiefly in parentheses and without punctuation.

But she’s a minor character. I could hardly begin to tell how delightful a character his Skimpole is, or how gracious is Mr. Jarndyce.

So I’ll finish this very long book. Why wouldn’t I? Every time I pick it up, I enjoy it.

2. And It’s Good For Me

My second reason would never carry me forward without the first, but it’s a reason nevertheless: I’m purposely seeking to retrain my brain.

I’ve become a product of the internet era, just as you have. Everything’s compact and quick. You could stop and think about what you’ve read, or you could click away. Usually we click away.

Hardly anything is longer than a page. If it is, you’ll get interrupted with a notification from email or Facebook anyway, so there’s never any time to reflect. Or even to hold sustained attention on a subject.

I’ve actually said to myself at times, “I’m afraid I’m losing the ability to read a book.” Or maybe it’s the ability to go slowly through a line of thought, or through my internal reaction to a scene or a character.

It’s not that I’m not reading books; and as for maintaining a train of thought, I’ve just finished writing a book that’s turned out at least somewhat better than wildly disconnected and incoherent. Yet as I read, I really do find myself every few pages wondering what’s happening on Facebook. (Tell me that’s never happened to you!)

It’s disturbing, but I have no intention of giving in to it. The best defense I know is to continually keep training myself out of it. And there’s nothing for it like reading authors who’ve never heard of Facebook.

So yes, I’ll keep reading. I suggest you try it too. Choose the right reading, and it’ll be good for you! But it’ll also be just plain old good.

3 Responses

  1. You are never wasting time or effort reading Dickens. I’m glad you mentioned his sense of humor. It’s not mentioned much but he can be a riot.
    As for minor characters, I can never speak of Mrs. Gummidge from Copperfield without a catch in my voice.

  2. Kezza says:

    I identify powerfully with that feeling of losing the ability to read. That got me actively working to change things back in 2016 and I made a conscious effort to start reading books again – and that includes the classics as I work through my own classics program along with apologetics, theology, philosophy etc. I am averaging now from 100-120 books a year even while working full time.

  3. Gregory says:

    This is so good!

    I loved your encouragement to fight social media distractions for the sake of beneficial reading. I’m also afraid of losing the ability to read a book or the ability to go slowly through a line in an imaginative way.

    It reminds me of something Pastor Philip De Courcy said, “Good books are indeed a lifeline to better understanding, proven wisdom, and spiritual insight. In a day when less than half the adult population reads literature, the Christian needs to buck that trend and renew their mind through reading the Bible, reading books on the Bible and reading other books that add to one’s knowledge. Books deepen our understanding, expand our horizons, slay some of our Shibboleths, humanize our heroes, stir our passions and help us to love God with all our mind and heart” (https://www.ktt.org/resources/truth-matters/leaders-are-readers).

    May I continue to dive into meaningful books! Thank you for this great article!

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