On Reading Old Books

Since I set my 52-book reading lists a year in advance, I am oftentimes asked if I worry about missing out on new books. I’m not. I’ve been burned by some new books that are super popular. Murakami states this perfectly through a character in Norwegian Wood:

The better I got to know Nagasawa, the stranger he seemed. I had met a lot of strange people in my day, but none as strange as Nagasawa. He was a far more voracious reader than I, but he made it a rule never to touch a book by any author who had not been dead at least thirty years. “That’s the only kind of book I can trust,” he said.

“It’s not that I don’t believe in contemporary literature,” he added, “but I don’t want to waste valuable time reading any book that has not had the baptism of time. Life is too short.”

~ Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

Some new books are popular because their authors are rich and famous (see Principles by Ray Dalio and Zero to One by Peter Thiel). Others are popular because they hit a certain cultural moment. I like to give books at least a few years to face the test of time. I also find C.S. Lewis’ rule a good one:

It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

~ C.S. Lewis, “On the reading of old books,” God in the Dock

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