September 24, 2008


What makes a book a classic? When was the term first used?

On this day in 1904 a Joseph Malaby Dent began to flesh out an ambitious vision of reprinting classic books in what would be called the Everyman's Library.

Are books of old dry, uninspiring, and hardly suited for the fast-paced world the Industrial Revolution brought to the twentieth century - and what do we call today?

I've read, read aloud to my kids, and listened to audio classics for years. I have to put myself into the shoes of the characters and author, desiring to see from their perspective what was going on in their culture. What of their culture drove the events, the inventions - what were the era's questions?

What if all we read are current era/popular books?

CS Lewis said, "A good rule, after reading a new book, is never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between ... A new book is still on trial and has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down through the ages."

How many of today's books will transcend beyond our culture?

This is what defines Classics: an ability to adapt themselves to various times and places and thus provide a sense of the shared life of humanity over the course of space and time. They stretch, shape, and confront us - and are ever new.

Could books help us rise to another level? Do we sometimes habituate ourselves to companions of small statures? I like to visualize it as standing on the shoulders of others, a great cloud of witnesses, for a better view. Reading can take us away from ourselves to where we can step back and see the whole, instead of just 'me, myself, and I', and self-success thinking.

Maybe the more books we can live in, we could be more rehearsed in life: knowing the stage, recognizing the plots and props - having tried out many characters and scenarios. With my kids I thought of the unencumbered time they had to invent their own images, explore thier own fantasies, to create their own possibilities - with both books and movies. They seemed able to get on with meaningful living when they left the nest of home.

Someone said, "In a very real sense, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read ... It is not true that we can have only one life to live; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish."

"A good book is not problem-centered; it is people-centered. It reveals how to be a human being and what the possibilities of life are; it offers hope," wrote Gladys Hunt in her Honey for a Child's Heart, speaking about how many books are agenda driven, with many children's books being moralizing and sermonette style stories. These do not touch the heart.

"The importance of poetry and novels is that the Christian life involves the use of the imagination - after all, we are dealing with the invisible [like God]. And imagination is our training in dealing with the invisible - making connections, looking for plot and character."
- Eugene Peterson

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