Why read old books? Why not pay attention just to the future rather than the past? Why read, indeed, what no one reads anymore?
After all, the future is interesting, the past is passed, the present is here and present. (Oh, what platitudes.) If we have what is here already, why even look back at times that hadn’t the gifts we enjoy today? Doesn’t the ascendancy of the new nullify the importance and interest of the old?
This is what many people think now, and I’m sure engineers must have heard this view represented at least, if not actively pushed. These are pertinent questions, though. Perhaps even the value for Christians of reading the Old Testament at all hangs in the balance. Sure, the Old Testament was inspired, its very words, by God, but if it’s irrelevant, it changes nothing; if the same arguments about all old books are true, then they are true of even Scripture. The one who likes thinking about innovation and not about mapping out progress, the one who likes implementing and not examining and defining and questioning, will find this option especially tempting.
I would say that perhaps we judge the past with too much immediate dismissal, but even more than that, that not all written in the past is about the past. Indeed, from the perspective of the writing itself it must have been about some “present”, the present of the author at the time he or she wrote it, which comes to bear on our present much more than we want to believe. We want to tell ourselves that our advances in technology set us apart, but until the Day of the Lord we are ever human in the same sense, under the same curse of sin, of death, of dishonour, as people of past times. In this way, the most fundamental aspect of the human spirit, we live in the same long “now” as did our forefathers of a thousand lifetimes.
So transcendent truths of this long “now” bind humanity across time and place. If we do not do the things that fulfil our being human according to the purposes of the Lord Almighty, then none of our advances, none of our studies, none of our work can matter at all. It would be no good whatsoever. For if man is not good at being man, for what good is he? And what excellence is there of being human, but for the things for which God has set apart our numerous race?
Technical books will not show us what real life is like, or how the human condition is. As for new books, old books may tell even more than they because of our time’s unique blind spots, just as past ages have had their own blind spots. Man in his nature cannot be improved by technology or social engineering. All opinions are not equally valid, and not all non-scientific propositions are merely opinions. To be able to break out of a worldview that saturates our thinking and wars with a worldview we have adopted on the surface, we may find older books of great help, because we in the current fifty years have no monopoly on truth.
Moreover, beauty is not dependent on the fashions of decades. Some works of literature will timelessly illustrate, in poetry or prose, something of the beauty of human life, some a fall so beautifully tragic, some a moment so painfully transient, some a true hope so wonderfully strong. These will feed the human soul whether they were written twenty or two thousand years ago, when the thinking reader discerns whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, any excellence, anything worthy of praise (Phl. 4.8).
To know and understand beauty that reflects truth will help the truth we already know propositionally to seep into our soul, to permeate our cracks, to finally saturate our essence. It cultivates our emotions toward godliness. This, then, is part of living in Christ and becoming like Him:
Through theoria, the contemplation of the triune God, human beings come to know and experience what it means to be fully human (the created image of God); through their communion with Jesus Christ, God shares Himself with the human race, in order to conform them to all that God is in knowledge, righteousness and holiness. As God became man, in all ways except sin, He will also make man god, in all ways except His divine essence. (Theosis, Wikipedia)
It is an act of worship to seek to know Him in truth and in beauty, for apart from Him neither of these would exist. If these are rooted in an unchanging God, then, excellence is not in any way dependent on time: the excellence of three millennia ago has not changed.