December 7, 2012
One Old Book for Every Three New Ones
The publishing industry wants you to know about all the new books coming out, we at IVP included. (And there are more books all the time, have you noticed?) But we also know that the good old, golden oldies are important, too, and not just for business — for life. C. S. Lewis had something to say on this subject.
In fact, the Lewis quotation I have in mind is itself a great example of the grand conversation that takes place in books. (I'll be posting on that particular subject before long.) What I mean is that I want to quote a new book quoting Lewis talking about even older books.
Randy Richards and Brandon O'Brien write in their (new) book, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes (p. 49):
This makes me think of several things:
I'm almost safe from a charge of hypocrisy on this count — because two of the seven books I'm currently reading might plausibly be called "old": Madeleine L'Engle's The Moon by Night and Tove Jansson's Tales from Moominvalley. (Hm, coincidence that these are both children's literature?) Lewis might not have thought so, but the 1960s are getting to be old, aren't they? Anyway, I'm lucky that 2/7 isn't very far behind Lewis's ratio of 1:3.
This scheme of intentionally bumping into one's own mental furniture is very much what's great about studying history (which I have some experience in), and it's also very much the idea behind our Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and Reformation Commentary on Scripture series. (Check them out; they both have free downloads to give you an interesting taste.)
3. Backlist and frontlist
The publishing business prioritizes "frontlist" titles: books that are freshly released. To loosely borrow from Steve Martin in The Jerk: "Enough of these old books! Bring us some new books! This year's books!"
New books can be wonderful things, of course. (I certainly feel that way about Misreading Scripture, which I've just quoted.) But a great book has a long shelf life. (Yes, pun intended.) Even if it weren't for the specific benefit of "error checking" our presuppositions that Richards, O'Brien, and Lewis are talking about, I imagine it's obvious to the readers of this blog that old books can be just as powerful as when they're new. Duh. (In some cases, even more so. But that sounds like a topic for a future post.)
Not all old books are worthwhile, of course. Some seriously stinky garbage has been published in every era. One of the dangers of nostalgia is an uninformed conservatism that romanticizes every product of former ages. That's no smarter than an uninformed progressivism that fetishizes novelty. (Don't get me started on how the word originality has entirely flipped its meaning over time. Or maybe that's just another future post.)
But the "test of time" really can be an invigorating thing for a good book. That's why....
4. Loving the backlist
...I'm glad to say that we at IVP are deeply appreciative of "the backlist" — our own, as well as other publishers'. In fact, in the coming months, we'll be taking concrete steps to show lots of love to our backlist books, which include such rock-star titles as:
This is not an exhaustive list, obviously. I'm sure I'll be writing more about others soon. (Don't see your favorite old IVP book? Comment here to let us all know what it is! I'll do something fun with the list you generate.)
Bottom line, we're in this business not because of publishing's potential to strike gold with the latest blockbuster (though I guess we wouldn't be opposed to that!). No, it's because books are awesome. I bet you agree.