Niestrath mug

I shared here a couple of years ago a story from a camp I directed for 11-13 year-olds in Wisconsin. They are two-week sessions, so there is time to take on some significant camp improvement projects for those who want to take part. One particularly warm day one of the young men said to me, “Man, this is fun!”

I responded with, “Really?”

He thought for a moment and had a moment of growth. “Well, not exactly fun. It is satisfying. I think that’s better.”

His approach to that landscaping project might describe my approach to what I choose to read. I have read maybe five recent novels in the past few years — and two of those were by African authors. Nothing against good recent novels, they are a wonderful source of cultural truth delivered to us in a way that we can accept. I do read what may be called classics. Most of what I read is non-fiction, and much of it is certainly not fun. I read for satisfaction.

I have grown to appreciate more those who do a research and compile memoirs and letters of those who have lived before. I have been blessed with some family archives recently. Letters written a century ago by my ancestors. (A great argument for learning to read cursive writing,) I am grateful for those who have spent lifetimes learning other languages well enough to translate important works into a language I can easily access. Because of their work I can read the thoughts of Martin Luther, Jean Calvin, Leo Tolstoy, Plotinus, Hildegard of Bingen, or Augustine of Hippo.

I read old books because they remind me that the human condition at many fundamental levels has changed little. The dilemmas, questions, and mistakes are of the same nature as those who lived centuries ago. The desire for peace and justice is ancient.

I read old books because they keep me grounded and encouraged. Yes, even those that chronicle difficult times. One cannot read Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Martyrdom of Polycarp, or Nelson Mandela without being moved at their patience and courage. They are reminders that throughout history evil will occasionally gain the upper hand, but truth, faith, and courage will continue to exist — and be better remembered.

I read old books because I am amazed at how often I think, “That could have been written yesterday.” The thinking and the solutions that are offered in times past are worth hearing and considering.

All of this keeps me balanced and hopeful. People have written through plague, war, famine, flood, civil unrest, defeat, and victory. Old books keep us in touch with the lessons of the past — of which, I believe, many of our leaders are bereft.

There is, of course, one ancient book that stands above all others in Western society. That book is the Bible. It hides nothing about man and reveals enough about God that we sometimes struggle with those truths. Even here we have reference to the value of what was written in the past. As the apostle Paul was finishing up his letter to the churches in Rome. In reference to the Old Testament, he said, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4, RSV).

What Paul said in his letter is clearly in a religious, and more specifically prophetic, context. I believe that what he said about the Old Testament is true of anything written before with good intent. If we carry to it the right attitude.

Most of us are faced with questions or situations that are not easily resolved. We are presented with information that we do not trust. We are called to action that may seem clear in concept but difficult to act upon. One of the reasons that can cause us to feel emotionally and physically tired is that we are in a constant state of uncertainty. We are not sure what to do or say. Or maybe we know what to do or say, but we must weigh the impact it may have on family and friends.

How does this relate to reading old books (the Bible in particular)? Good ones do not tell us what to do. They teach us how to think. In the quiet of interacting one on one with a good old book we can engage our minds and sharpen our thinking. We develop ways of thinking that we can put into practice. If our thinking is right so will our thoughts, speech, and actions be. The “what to do” may still be difficult, but we will have a good foundation from which to work. Grab a good old book — enjoy?