I have two bookshelves to the immediate left of my desk. When I look at the shelves, I see more books I have forgotten about than books which I remember well. And the books on these shelves are ones I have picked up in the last 5-10 years. As I have been reading Confessions, I have pondered what separates a book which will be forgotten in a year or two from one which stands the test of time. I haven't got that all figured out, but I do know that some books have a message which is timeless and some books don't. Book like Charnock's Existence and Attributes of God, Lloyd-Jones's Spiritual Depression, R.C. Sproul's The Holiness of God, Jeremiah Burroughs's The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, just to name a few, stand the test of time. These are books I would read again (Sproul's, I have read twice already). I have a lot of books on those shelves which will never get a second read.
Some books written about current issues are helpful at the time, but they often lose their relevance quickly. Think back to some of the books you read ten years ago, and consider their subject matter. Are people still writing about those issues? I have books on my shelves which were purchased because "everyone" was talking about the subject matter. Most of them I have yet to read again, and as I begin to look for space for seminary textbooks, I'm rather wishing I had been a little less eager to purchase. Yes, I know about digital books and saving space, but I don't care for digital books.
I love how Augustine addresses issues that are still pertinent today. He speaks about the struggle of his conversion:
I was held back by mere trifles, the most paltry inanities, all my old attachments. They plucked at my garment of flesh and whispered, 'Are you going to dismiss us? From this moment we shall never be with you again, for ever and ever. From this moment you will never again be allowed to do this thing or that, for evermore.' What was it, my God, that they meant when they whispered 'this thing or that?' Things so sordid and so shameful that I beg you in your mercy to keep the soul of your servant free from them! These voices, as I heard them, seemed less than half as loud as they had been before. They no longer barred my way, blatantly contradictory, but their mutterings seemed to reach me from behind, as though they were stealthily plucking at my back, trying to make me turn my head when I wanted to go forward. Yet, in my state of indecision, they kept me from tearing myself away, from shaking myself free of them and leaping across the barrier to the other side, where you were calling me. Habit was too strong for me when it asked, 'Do you think you can live without these things?'I remember those feelings myself prior to my own conversion; the knowledge that my life would change, being pulled and pushed away at the same time, and feeling like voices were whispering to me, "Do you really want to do this?" I am sure that myriads of people throughout the history of the Church have experienced similar feelings. The matter of conviction of sin will never be irrelevant.
The benefit of reading older literature is that we are able to see that we are not entirely unique here in the 21st Century. Older literature reminds us that we didn't invent the wheel. Many of the problems we think are unique to our time are simply the same ones dressed differently. Reading literature from all periods of history helps us to discern between the abiding truth and the permutations of that truth.
I would be interested to find out how many Christian books will have been released by the end of 2016. I would be curious to see how many of them are still being read in five years. I do know one thing: Augustine will still have readers. He is one of the most influential theologians in Christian history, and his influence extends beyond simply matters of faith. If you're a reader, and you haven't read Augustine yet, why not give him a try?