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The Reading Life

C. S. Lewis



  Title Page

  Preface by David C. Downing and Michael G. Maudlin

  Part One:On the Art and Joy of Reading

  Why We Read

  How to Know If You Are a True Reader

  Why Children’s Stories Are Not Just for Children

  Literature as Time Travel

  Why Fairy Tales Are Often Less Deceptive Than ‘Realistic’ Stories

  The Case for Reading Old Books

  On the Role of the Marvellous

  Growing Up Amidst a Sea of Books

  On Encountering a Favorite Author for the First Time

  Why Movies Sometimes Ruin Books

  How to Murder Words

  Saving Words from the Eulogistic Abyss

  The Achievements of J. R. R. Tolkien

  On the Dangers of Confusing Saga with History

  On Two Ways of Traveling and Two Ways of Reading

  Part Two:Short Readings on Reading

  Word Combinations

  Sincerity and Talent

  Prose Style

  Not in but Through



  The Up-to-Date Myth

  Keeping Up

  Wide Tastes

  Real Enjoyment

  Literary Snobs

  Re-reading Favorites Each Decade

  Reading and Experience

  Free to Skip

  Free to Read


  The Glories of Childhood—Versus Adolescence

  Jane Austen

  Art and Literature

  Art Appreciation

  Look. Listen. Receive.

  Talking About Books

  The Blessing of Correspondence

  In Praise of Dante

  On Alexandre Dumas

  The Delight of Fairy Tales

  Language as Comment

  Communicating the Essence of Our Lives

  Mapping My Books

  On Plato and Aristotle


  If Only

  On Shakespeare

  On Hamlet

  On Leo Tolstoy

  Advice for Writing

  Good Reading

  Appendix: Journal Exercises for Reflecting on Your Reading Life

  About the Author

  Also by C. S. Lewis


  About the Publisher


  THE NOTED CRITIC WILLIAM EMPSON ONCE DESCRIBED C. S. Lewis as “the best-read man of his generation, one who read everything and remembered everything he read.”1 This sounds like pardonable exaggeration, but it comes close to being true in the realms of literature, philosophy, and classics. At the age of ten, Lewis started reading Milton’s Paradise Lost. By age eleven, he began his lifelong habit of seasoning his letters with quotations from the Bible and Shakespeare. In his mid-teens, Lewis was reading classic and contemporary works in Greek, Latin, French, German, and Italian.

  And Lewis did indeed seem to remember most of what he read. One of his students recalled that someone could quote any line from the book-length Paradise Lost, and Lewis would continue the passage from memory. Another student said that he could take a book off Lewis’s shelf, open a page at random and begin reading, and Lewis could summarize the rest of the page, often word for word.2 With that kind of memory, Lewis had little difficulty reaching for just the right quotation or reference to illustrate his point. Since it seems he was able to carry an entire library in his head, it should come as no surprise that his major scholarly books average about one thousand citations apiece. His three volumes of letters contain another twelve thousand quotations or references. Even The Chronicles of Narnia for children contain nearly one hundred echoes or allusions to myth, history, or literature.

  But as Mortimer Adler once remarked, “In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.” Lewis would certainly agree, and he often commented how much his worldview and sensibility were shaped by the books he read—everything from Beatrix Potter in childhood to his re-reading of Homer’s Iliad, Dickens’s Bleak House, and Tennyson’s In Memoriam in the last few weeks before his death in November 1963.

  Lewis was a disciplined reader and an engaged reader. Fellow scholars recall how he could sit for hours in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, perusing and absorbing texts, oblivious to what was happening in the room around him. When reading books from his private library, he often added marginal notes and created his own index on the inside cover. If he found a book unprofitable, as he did Byron’s Don Juan, he simply wrote on the inside back cover “Never again.”

  Of course, reading was also one of the supreme pleasures of Lewis’s life. In his memoir Surprised by Joy Lewis described his ideal daily routine to be reading and writing from nine until one and again from five to seven, with breaks for meals, walking, or tea-time. Apart from those six hours of study every day, he also enjoyed light reading over meals or in the evening hours (pp. 141–143). All in all, Lewis’s preferred schedule seemed to include seven or eight hours of reading per day! For Lewis, reading was both a high calling and an endless source of satisfaction. In fact, his sense of vocation and avocation were virtually indistinguishable whenever he picked up a book—and often when he wrote one.

  Often Lewis described the community that is formed when one is among fellow passionate readers (see the chapter on “How to Know If You Are a True Reader”). This fellowship is not one of merely sharing a hobby but of people whose worlds have been enlarged and deepened by books. They are a distinctive group. This collection brings together fun, whimsical, and wise selections from Lewis’s lifetime of writing that would be of interest to those who share this passion. And we mean all who love reading literature, whether children’s fantasy, poetry, science fiction, or Jane Austen. We did not include his opinions on classic or historical literature, which was his academic specialty, but only his advice and opinions on the shared enterprise of reading works of general interest. Nor do we include his many comments on Christian or devotional reading. This book is for members of the reading club, broadly defined.

  One of the delights of Lewis’s thoughts on reading is the breadth of his passions, never forgetting the childhood joy in discovering that books were portals to other worlds. As Lewis himself explained, “Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. . . . In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”

  This volume is for the entertainment and the edification of those in this reading club. We hope you enjoy this new window into the wit and wisdom of C. S. Lewis.


  Codirector of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College in Illinois


  Senior Vice President and Executive Editor, HarperOne

  Part One

  On the Art and Joy of Reading

  Why We Read

  An Experiment in Criticism

  (from the Epilogue)

  WE SEEK AN ENLARGEMENT OF OUR BEING. WE want to be more than ourselves.

  Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself. And even when we build disinterested fantasies, they are saturated with, and limited by, our own psychology. To acquiesce in this particularity on the sensuous level—in other words, not to discount perspective—would be lunacy. We should then believe that the railway line really grew narrower as it receded into the
distance. But we want to escape the illusions of perspective on higher levels too.

  We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. We are not content to be Leibnitzian monads. We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is ‘I have got out’. Or from another point of view, ‘I have got in’; pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside.

  Good reading, therefore, though it is not essentially an affectional or moral or intellectual activity, has something in common with all three. In love we escape from our self into one other. In the moral sphere, every act of justice or charity involves putting ourselves in the other person’s place and thus transcending our own competitive particularity. In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favour of the facts as they are. The primary impulse of each is to maintain and aggrandise himself. The secondary impulse is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness. In love, in virtue, in the pursuit of knowledge, and in the reception of the arts, we are doing this. Obviously this process can be described either as an enlargement or as a temporary annihilation of the self. But that is an old paradox; ‘he that loseth his life shall save it’.

  We therefore delight to enter into other men’s beliefs (those, say, of Lucretius or Lawrence) even though we think them untrue. And into their passions, though we think them depraved, like those, sometimes, of Marlowe or Carlyle. And also into their imaginations, though they lack all realism of content.

  This must not be understood as if I were making the literature of power once more into a department within the literature of knowledge—a department which existed to gratify our rational curiosity about other people’s psychology. It is not a question of knowing (in that sense) at all. It is connaitre not savoir; it is erleben; we become these other selves. Not only nor chiefly in order to see what they are like but in order to see what they see, to occupy, for a while, their seat in the great theatre, to use their spectacles and be made free of whatever insights, joys, terrors, wonders or merriment those spectacles reveal. Hence it is irrelevant whether the mood expressed in a poem was truly and historically the poet’s own or one that he also had imagined. What matters is his power to make us live it. I doubt whether Donne the man gave more than playful and dramatic harbourage to the mood expressed in ‘The Apparition.’ I doubt still more whether the real Pope, save while he wrote it, or even then more than dramatically, felt what he expresses in the passage beginning ‘Yes, I am proud’.

  What does it matter?

  This, so far as I can see, is the specific value or good of literature considered as Logos; it admits us to experiences other than our own. They are not, any more than our personal experiences, all equally worth having. Some, as we say, ‘interest’ us more than others. The causes of this interest are naturally extremely various and differ from one man to another; it may be the typical (and we say ‘How true!’) or the abnormal (and we say ‘How strange!’); it may be the beautiful, the terrible, the awe-inspiring, the exhilarating, the pathetic, the comic, or the merely piquant. Literature gives the entrée to them all.

  Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog.

  Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

  How to Know If You Are a True Reader

  An Experiment in Criticism

  (from Chapter 1, “A Few and the Many”)

  1.Loves to re-read books.

  The majority never read anything twice. The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers ‘I’ve read it already’ to be a conclusive argument against reading a work. We have all known women who remembered a novel so dimly that they had to stand for half an hour in the library skimming through it before they were certain they had once read it. But the moment they became certain, they rejected it immediately. It was for them dead, like a burnt-out match, an old railway ticket, or yesterday’s paper; they had already used it. Those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life.

  2.Highly values reading as an activity (versus as a last resort).

  Secondly, the majority, though they are sometimes frequent readers, do not set much store by reading. They turn to it as a last resource. They abandon it with alacrity as soon as any alternative pastime turns up. It is kept for railway journeys, illnesses, odd moments of enforced solitude, or for the process called ‘reading oneself to sleep’. They sometimes combine it with desultory conversation; often, with listening to the radio. But literary people are always looking for leisure and silence in which to read and do so with their whole attention. When they are denied such attentive and undisturbed reading even for a few days they feel impoverished.

  3.Lists the reading of particular books as a life-changing experience.

  Thirdly, the first reading of some literary work is often, to the literary, an experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison. Their whole consciousness is changed. They have become what they were not before. But there is no sign of anything like this among the other sort of readers. When they have finished the story or the novel, nothing much, or nothing at all, seems to have happened to them.

  4.Continuously reflects and recalls what one has read.

  Finally, and as a natural result of their different behaviour in reading, what they have read is constantly and prominently present to the mind of the few, but not to that of the many. The former mouth over their favourite lines and stanzas in solitude. Scenes and characters from books provide them with a sort of iconography by which they interpret or sum up their own experience. They talk to one another about books, often and at length. The latter seldom think or talk of their reading.

  It is pretty clear that the majority, if they spoke without passion and were fully articulate, would not accuse us of liking the wrong books, but of making such a fuss about any books at all. We treat as a main ingredient in our well-being something which to them is marginal. Hence to say simply that they like one thing and we another is to leave out nearly the whole of the facts. If like is the correct word for what they do to books, some other word must be found for what we do. Or, conversely, if we like our kind of book we must not say that they like any book. If the few have ‘good taste’, then we may have to say that no such thing as ‘bad taste’ exists: for the inclination which the many have to their sort of reading is not the same thing and, if the word were univocally used, would not be called taste at all. . . .

  Many people enjoy popular music in a way which is compatible with humming the tune, stamping in time, talking, and eating. And when the popular tune has once gone out of fashion they enjoy it no more. Those who enjoy Bach
react quite differently. Some buy pictures because the walls ‘look so bare without them’; and after the pictures have been in the house for a week they become practically invisible to them. But there are a few who feed on a great picture for years. As regards nature, the majority ‘like a nice view as well as anyone’. They are not saying a word against it. But to make the landscapes a really important factor in, say, choosing the place for a holiday—to put them on a level with such serious considerations as a luxurious hotel, a good golf links, and a sunny climate—would seem to them affectation.

  Why Children’s Stories Are Not Just for Children

  Of Other Worlds

  (from “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”)

  I AM ALMOST INCLINED TO SET IT UP AS A CANON THAT a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can like only when you are waltzing is a bad waltz.

  This canon seems to me most obviously true of that particular type of children’s story which is dearest to my own taste, the fantasy or fairy tale. Now the modern critical world uses ‘adult’ as a term of approval. It is hostile to what it calls ‘nostalgia’ and contemptuous of what it calls ‘Peter Pantheism’. Hence a man who admits that dwarfs and giants and talking beasts and witches are still dear to him in his fifty-third year is now less likely to be praised for his perennial youth than scorned and pitied for arrested development. If I spend some little time defending myself against these charges, this is not so much because it matters greatly whether I am scorned and pitied as because the defence is germane to my whole view of the fairy tale and even of literature in general. My defence consists of three propositions.

  (1) I reply with a tu quoque [“you also”]. Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.