IVP - Behind the Books - One Old Book for Every Three New Ones

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):

[T]he best way to become sensitive to our own presuppositions about cultural mores — what goes without being said for us — is to read the writing of Christians from different cultures and ages. …No one has said this better, as far as we know, than C. S. Lewis in his now-classic introduction to Athanasius's On the Incarnation. Lewis advises readers to read at least one old book for every three new ones. Here is his reason:

"Every age…is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially 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…. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes."

This makes me think of several things:

1. Lucky

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.

2. History

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.

Posted by Jon Boyd at December 7, 2012 7:44 AM Bookmark and Share


Thank you for this excellent reminder to honor old treasures -- like the classic film The Jerk! Well done. :)

Comment by: Ann Boyd at December 7, 2012 11:08 AM

It's the trumpet-on-the-beach scene that takes that film into the realm of true greatness.

Would you like to share with us your pick for favorite older IVP books, Ann?

Comment by: Jon at December 7, 2012 2:40 PM

Just wondering:

What is the oldest book still on sale from IVP/

How long does your average published book stay in print?

Comment by: Terry Tiessen at December 7, 2012 4:24 PM

Great question, Terry! I myself want to know the answer. It'll take a little research for me to be certain, but I'll keep you posted!

Comment by: Jon at December 10, 2012 7:58 AM

That is a great post, and I certainly think Lewis was spot on with his recommendations, but reading old books will certainly make you into an oddball in many circles. Ah, but who cares, it will also be much easier on the pocketbook, as most of the old stuff is somewhere online for free these days.

I fact, I'm finding myself experiencing content overload lately with all the free books that can be read on an iPad. It is probably good news for publishers that I find myself sometimes buying a book just to ensure that I have a greater committment to finishing it before starting on another one...

Comment by: JJ at December 12, 2012 2:57 PM

I know just what you mean! Nothing like laying out out a little cash to motivate reading. It's not just public-domain repositories like Project Gutenberg, but now many public libraries are catching up with digital collections. (Look into your local situation, if you haven't already.)

And yes, I'm with you: reading _at all_ already makes us oddballs in plenty of places, so one might as well go all the way. :)

Comment by: Jon at December 12, 2012 3:11 PM

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