On Cream Soup and Reading Old Books

I was reading from The Joy of Cooking the other day, and you can imagine my shock, surprise, horror, delight when I came across these lines:

Casseroles are comprised of several precooked or quick-cooking foods, one of which is generally rice or pasta, bound together with a sauce. This sauce is sometimes made with canned condensed soup, a product that JOY has sung the praises of as a timesaver since its introduction in the 1930s. Since the American casserole first took shape, with its delectable gratineed topping of bread or cracker crumbs, grated cheese and butter, uncountable versions on this basic theme have been created, a testament to its delicious flexibility…

If all of your food-related reading is published on the Internet by people under the age of 40, it would not be surprising if you believe that cooking with canned condensed soup should be considered the eighth deadly sin.

But this is helpful to remember: people haven’t always thought this way. The Joy of Cooking is the book that JULIA CHILD called “the fundamental resource for any American cook,” and it has sung the praises of canned condensed soup for seventy-five years.

Now my point is not really about soup, it’s about reading. This is just such  perfect, funny example of why it is so important to take in a variety of sources. If the only voices in your head come from your exact same time and place, you get a really limited view of what “everyone” thinks is true.

We don’t really believe that no one has had any wisdom or insight until our generation first got its fingers on a keyboard, do we? It’s humbling and broadening to step outside of our natural assumptions and values, the beliefs we take for granted, the prejudices and blind spots that we don’t even realize we live with.

In some circles, we call this being part of the “great conversation.” We  have so much information available to us– we can read books and blogs, listen to podcasts, subscribe to news feeds that are perfectly tailored to our interests and preferences. Reading broadly is an antidote to this– its a reminder, once again: people haven’t always thought this way. This perspective reminds us to take even our pet passions with a grain of salt.


C.S. Lewis has said the same thing, much more profoundly:

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books….

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood with out the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed “at” some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. 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.1


4 responses to “On Cream Soup and Reading Old Books

  1. “If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said.” I love Lewis. Sigh.

    Have you listened to the Delectable Education podcasts? I know you a little Charlotte Masony. (that’s how I first found your blog!) Anyway, they quoted something I loved: “Literature is dangerous except in large doses.” I forgot who said it, but I LOVE IT.

    Great post!! (I can’t believe you were reading about cooking. 😛 It’s my least favorite subject!)

    • Thanks for the podcast rec! I always love finding new things to listen to. And love that quote!

      And I read about cooking because I don’t actually like to cook, but it keeps needing to be done! I keep thinking that reading on the topic will inspire me to greatness!

      • Hmmmm…. I like the way you think! Maybe I *should* read about cooking! 😉

      • I heard someone say on a podcast lately, “Here’s how to know if you are a Reader: When you have a question or a problem, your first instinct is look to a book to find an answer.”

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