Tuesday, November 22

C.S. Lewis

Long before the bane of television invaded our every waking moment C.S. Lewis commented that while most people in modern industrial cultures are at least marginally able to read, they just don't. In his wise and wonderful book An Experiment in Criticism he said, “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.”

Lewis went further admitting that there is a profound puzzlement on the part of the mass of the citizenry over the tastes and habits of the literate. “It is pretty clear that the majority,” he wrote, “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.”

C.S. Lewis was the happy heir of a great tradition of books and the literary life. His brilliant writing—in his novels like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Screwtape Letters, and Perelandra, as well as in his nonfiction like The Four Loves, Surprised by Joy, The Abolition of Man, and A Grief Observed--evidence voracious reading. He was born in 1898 and died on this day in 1963, just seven days shy of his sixty-fifth birthday--the same day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and thus, largely overlooked. In the years in-between he became renowned as a popular best-selling author, a brilliant English literary scholar and stylist, and one of the foremost apologists for the Christian faith. Recalling his formative childhood years, he wrote, “I am the product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books.”

Throughout his life, Lewis celebrated everything that is good and right and true about the literary life. The result was that he was larger than life in virtually every respect. Though he knew that this was little more than a peculiarity in the eyes of most, he did not chafe against it. Instead, he fully embraced it. He explained, “Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize 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, is in a prison. My own eyes are not enough for me. I will see through those of others.” This is because, he argued, “Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”


Mark Dolan said...

Do you know the source for the first quote in the last paragraph? I've tried to find it but to no avail. Thanks!

gileskirk said...

I am away from my office and my library through the rest of the weekend so I cannot verify this, but as I recall, that quote is from An Experiment in Criticism.

Mark Dolan said...

Thanks! Had to read the whole book to find it in the second to the last paragraph. Time well spent!