A Reading Life

Lewis has a good deal to say about reading. We might think he provides advice on reading high-minded books, ones that perhaps Oxford dons leisurely read and the rest of the population labor to enjoy, let alone comprehend. It isn’t true. While Lewis was a ferocious reader ever since his early school days, though his references accompanied an intimacy with Greek and Latin, and despite his professional life being steeped in medieval literature, we don’t see his call to the everyday reader to be altogether heady in reading choices. He even posts a warning through the demon’s mouth in The Screwtape Letters: “You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the ‘best’ people, the ‘right’ food, the ‘important’ books.”

That said, and given the approaching summer months when vacations might spur on more reading, here are 10 pointers that Lewis provides in picking a book to read.

1. Read something real and authentic

I like the comparison he gives in this excerpt from “The Lilies that Fester”, an essay from The World’s Last Night:

Suppose you had spent an evening among very young and very transparent snobs who were feigning a discriminating enjoyment of a great port, though anyone who knew could see very well that, if they had ever drunk port in their lives before, it came from a grocer’s. And then suppose that on your journey home you went into a grubby little tea-shop and there heard an old body in a feather boa say to another old body, with a smack of her lips, “That was a nice cup o’ tea, dearie, that was. Did me good.” Would you not, at that moment, feel that this was like fresh mountain air? For here, at last, would be something real. Here would be a mind really concerned about that in which it expressed concern. Here would be pleasure, here would be undebauched experience, spontaneous and compulsive, from the fountain-head. A live dog is better than a dead lion. In the same way, after a certain kind of sherry party, where there have been cataracts of culture but never one word or one glance that suggested a real enjoyment of any art, any person, or any natural object, my heart warms to the schoolboy on the bus who is reading Fantasy and Science Fiction, rapt and oblivious of all the world beside. For here also I should feel that I had met something real and live and unfabricated; genuine literary experience, spontaneous and compulsive, disinterested. I should have hopes of that boy. Those who have greatly cared for any book whatever may possibly come to care, some day, for good books. The organs of appreciation exist in them. They are not impotent.

Lewis is not advising that we read any old book. He suggests that, “if you don’t read good books you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions you will fall into sensual satisfactions” (“Learning in War-Time”, The Weight of Glory). So, when we read, we ought to find a sense of realness and awe. (Consider reading “On Stories” in Of Other Worlds where Lewis addresses the challenges of modern education and the joy of reading.)

2. Read to expand who you are

The way we get more narrow and more isolated is not turning off social media channels and investing our lives in true friendship; it’s not reading. In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis points out that good reading should transform us and shape us. “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,” he says. “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.”

When we have this stance about reading, we also begin to understand the joy in re-reading. “The literary man re-reads, other men simply read,” Lewis says in “Different Tastes in Literaturefound in On Stories, “A novel once read is to them like yesterday’s newspaper. One may have some hopes of a man who has never read the Odyssey, or Malory, or Boswell, or Pickwick: but none (as regards literature) of the man who tells you he has read them, and thinks that settles the matter.” (Consider reading “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said” also in On Stories.)

3. Read the Bible with someone wiser

It might sound like an odd point, but listen to what Lewis says in a letter on February 9, 1953:The story about the girl who had reached the age of 16 under Christian teachers without hearing of the Incarnation is an eye-opener. For ordinary children (I don’t know about the Deaf ) I don’t see any advantage in presenting the Gospels without some doctrinal comment. After all, they weren’t written for people who did not know the doctrine, but for converts, already instructed, who now wanted to know a bit more about the life and sayings of the Master. No ancient sacred books were intended to be read without a teacher: hence the Ethiopian eunuch in the Acts says to St. Philip ‘How can I understand unless someone tells me?'”

4. Read old books

In the opening of the essay,“On the Reading of Old Books” found in God in the DockLewis says in a punchy way, “Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books.” But, he adds, “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 without the knowledge of a good many other modern books.”

His analogy is helpful: “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.” (Consider reading chapter 27 of The Screwtape Letters for a little antithesis.)

5. Read expectantly 

Lewis says in “George Orwell”, an essay in On Stories, “My appetite is hearty and when I sit down to read I like a square meal.” Don’t read as if it were some chore or a  choice away from modern entertainment devices. Read expecting to receive more than you imagine. 

6. Read without arrogance

Depending on our circle of friends, a reading list can sometimes be used as a weapon of pride. We plant our flag deeply into the new title in this-or-that subject and we prop ourselves up with our knowledge. Lewis makes the following observation in a letter to Bede Griffiths on April 16, 1940: “Last term I had to make the following remark to a room full of Christian undergraduates. ‘A man who is eating or lying with his wife or preparing to go to sleep, in humility, thankfulness, and temperance, is, by Christian standards, in an infinitely higher state than one who is listening to Bach or reading Plato in a state of pride.'”

This also goes to reading widely and not simply for one’s academic prowess. Lewis says in The Four Loves, “The truly wide taste in reading is that which enables a man to find something for his needs on the sixpenny tray outside any secondhand bookshop.”

7. Remember your conversion

Lewis is clear in a letter to a former student on January 29, 1941: “One of the minor rewards of conversion is to be able to see at last the real point of all the old literature which we are brought up to read with the point left out!” What a great blessing to carry our conversion – the death and resurrection of Jesus – with us even into our reading.  

8. Read Christians from the past

In the essay “On the Reading of Old Books”, Lewis tells us how past Christian writers influenced his thoughts on the basic tenants of Christianity that weave through differences in time and faith traditions.  

I myself was first led into reading the Christian classics, almost accidentally, as a result of my English studies. Some, such as Hooker, Herbert, Traherne, Taylor and Bunyan, I read because they are themselves great English writers; others, such as Boethius, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Dante, because they were “influences.” George Macdonald I had found for myself at the age of sixteen and never wavered in my allegiance, though I tried for a long time to ignore his Christianity. They are, you will note, a mixed bag, representative of many Churches, climates and ages. And that brings me to yet another reason for reading them. The divisions of Christendom are undeniable and are by some of these writers most fiercely expressed. But if any man is tempted to think—as one might be tempted who read only contemporaries—that “Christianity” is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his own century, that this is not so. Measured against the ages “mere Christianity” turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible.

(Consider reading the epilogue of Miracles to get another caution flag in reading some modern Christian authors.) 

9. Don’t be afraid to skip

Lewis gives this simple advice in Mere Christianity, “It is a very silly idea that in reading a book you must never ‘skip’. All sensible people skip freely when they come to a chapter which they find is going to be no use to them.” (We may not want to use this advice for Mere Christianity itself, however.)

10. Read because words matter

Our culture is fashioned around visuals, attentive to reducing language to shorthand and emojis. We need to be conscious of the importance of words and their changeability in everything we read, primarily modern non-fiction. In an essay titled “On Stories” in  Of Other Worlds, Lewis observes, “A skilful doctor of words will pronounce the disease to be mortal at that moment when the word in question begins to harbour the adjectival parasites real or true. As long as gentleman has a clear meaning, it is enough to say that So-and-so is a gentleman. When we begin saying that he is a ‘real gentleman’ or ‘a true gentleman’ or ‘a gentleman in the truest sense’ we may be sure that the word has not long to live.”

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