Do not read old books in place of religious practice or enjoying your family or anything you know to be good and true. Do not read old books in place of pleasant pastimes like tending your garden or expanding your apiary or composing dank memes. Rather read old books instead of the unpleasant, bad, untrue things in your life. I’ll be more specific — read old books instead of reading the news, checking Facebook, or arguing with people on the Internet (but I repeat myself).
Read? you ask. Old? you wonder. Books? you recoil.
Yes. If you can’t read them, look at the pictures. If they can’t be old, at least read some book. And if it can’t be books, read old newspapers, poems, letters. But the best thing for all of us (me included; I’m looking at you, Tzvi-who-debates-atheist-strangers-on-Twitter-at-2am) is to Read. Old. Books.
Why read? Because as amazing as images and videos are, they are surface-level means of communication. The job of a video is to make you know that something is true rather than knowing what it truly is. Visual aids are useful in grasping a concept but they tie down our powers of abstraction to defined forms: Huge populations are rearranging themselves according to this chart, this line represents the progression or regression of a complex trend, Harry Potter looks only like Daniel Radcliffe. But when the information or narrative is absorbed in words, we are forced to engage, to struggle, to paint our own images and form our own ties. These in turn give rise to our own questions, because his scar doesn’t have to zig-zag just so; I just made it up, after all. Reading has the same advantage over lectures or audio books; even these are fed to you in the voice of another, demanding less of your analytical mind, less of your involvement. Ultimately, the medium is the message, and the best medium for confronting ideas and possibly people is the written word.
Why old? Because rhetoric is a girl’s best friend and salesmanship is forever. Because almost everyone is trying to convince you of something, and even narrative fiction is written at a moment and a spot by an author who eats food and walks the streets of contemporary Cleveland, Tokyo, Buenos Aires. As we are bodies, we are bound by culture and norms, and even our rebellion is against our status quo. G-d gave us the gifts of time and space so we can read something truly different, not from the other team in the same game but from a different game entirely. Then our observations on life and people are given broad grounding and we break free of the simple clichés that dull our thinking. “People used to think the earth was flat” would not, if it were true, be the casual dismissal of the past it’s sometimes made out to be. On the contrary, imagine meeting a mind, as awake and intelligent as your own, who truly thought if they walked too far in one direction they might fall off the edge of reality. What a radical, refreshing error! If you only read contemporary, never complain that the world seems so small.
Why books? Because the real advantages of old reading need time to take hold; a brief foray into a 1918 newspaper will break us free of the present and force our mind to engage with elsewhere, but to fully immerse in a way comparable to our involvement in modern distractions we must set aside time and dive into works thousands of words long. A newspaper author assumes his reader is from his time, as does the novelist, but the latter has the luxury of space and will delve into matters the former will assume as basic background knowledge.
Through reading the old Books we will furnish our inner dwellings with exotic artifacts, Fabergé eggs and terracotta soldiers, dusty venerations and late contempts. When we return from our journeys to the controversies and considerations of our own world, our own moment and spot, they will be beggared anew before our imported treasures.
We will have recognized our assumptions for mere trappings and perhaps glimpsed the constants of the human spirit. Through their beauty and pain, absolution and tragedy, obsessions and banalities, in the works of the past we find ourselves, perhaps even our truer selves, the parts untouched by the circumstances of our birth.
Sometimes, to be truly social, to understand, hear, and know another, we must turn off our phones and instead turn a yellowed page.