Lewis the Reader: A (Proposed) Anthology

A few years ago, I was asked to edit an anthology of C. S. Lewis’s writing on reading. I prepared as a kind of sketchy outline the following, but the custodians of Lewis’s estate, in their great wisdom, decided that I could not be trusted with the task. I reproduce my outline here as a testament to a project I would have enjoyed working on. 


In late 1930, when C. S. Lewis had recently purchased The Kilns, the house he would occupy for the rest of his life, he found himself engaged in certain unfamiliar activities: working long hours in the garden, striving to keep a pond free from debris, planting some trees and chopping down others. In a letter to his old friend Arthur Greeves he said that he found his new life rather comically odd. “It is absurd how remote all simple human activities have been from me all my life: so much so that when I heave up my axe I still always see myself as an illustration in Robinson Crusoe.”

It is the comment of a bookish man who had been a bookish child. Francis Spufford’s wonderful memoir of his early life as a reader is called The Child That Books Built, but there has rarely been a child, or later an adult, more completely book-built than C. S. Lewis. In the work that would make his name as one of the finest medievalists of his generation, The Allegory of Love (1936), he pauses at the end of a learned exposition of the poems of Ariosto and Tasso to make a confession: Samuel Johnson, he says, “once described the ideal happiness he would choose, if he were regardless of futurity” — that is, if he did not need to consider any future consequences of his choice. “My own choice, with the same reservation, would be to read the Italian epic – to be always convalescent from some small illness and always seated in a window that overlooked the sea, there to read these poems eight hours of each happy day.” The statement is a confession, yes, but also a planting of Lewis’s personal flag: he is telling his fellow scholars that before he was a scholar he was a reader, and before those epics of the Italian Renaissance gave him fodder for scholarly investigation they had given — and would surely continue to give — him delight.

{Perhaps it need not be said, but literary scholarship and delight in reading do not invariably go together. In one of his books Lewis tells an apt anecdote about the days when he would evaluate essays by candidates for places at Oxford: “I well remember the snub I once got from a man to whom, as we came away from an examiners’ meeting, I tactlessly mentioned a great poet on whom several candidates had written answers. His attitude (I’ve forgotten the words) might be expressed in the form ‘Good God, man, do you want to go on after hours? Didn’t you hear the hooter blow?’”}

But this man who could take delight in old books, old poems, that few others could read except as a matter of scholarly duty and under duress, was also a lifelong lover of children’s books. “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.” And in the last scholarly book he published in his lifetime, An Experiment in Criticism (1961), he celebrated and defended once more the child’s way of reading.

As there are, or were, families and circles in which it was almost a social necessity to display an interest in hunting, or county cricket, or the Army List, so there are others where it requires great independence not to talk about, and therefore occasionally to read, the approved literature, especially the new and astonishing works, and those which have been banned or have become in some other way subjects of controversy. Readers of this sort … are entirely dominated by fashion…. Yet, while this goes on downstairs, the only real literary experience in such a family may be occurring in a back bedroom where a small boy is reading Treasure Island under the bed-clothes by the light of an electric torch.

Few indeed are the scholars — fewer still the great scholars, and Lewis was indisputably a great scholar — who could write so passionately in defense of the way he read when he was a small child, or who could enjoy The Wind in the Willows as much at age sixty as he had at age ten. This distinctive ability to read in so many ways, and for so many reasons, is what makes Lewis such a wonderful guide to the world of reading. In the pages that follow we will see something of the variety of his comments on reading: in letters to friends and family members, in book reviews, in popular writing, in scholarly lectures and monographs, he develops a rich and full account of the ways in which reading can enrich any human life.

This account is perhaps all the more enjoyable for being completely unsystematic: it arises from friendly discourse and from encounters with particular books. I have tried to impose a bit of order by segregating the comments topically, and by providing brief introductions to some passages and a few informative notes, but I trust that all this will do nothing to disguise the spontaneity and liveliness of Lewis’s commentary. In one of the passages cited below Lewis commends, for certain readerly moods, “a gossipy, formless book which can be opened anywhere.” I hope this will be, for many of you, that kind of book. But structure there also is, should you wish it.

1. Children’s Books (not just for children)

2. Delight

3. Comfort

Lewis’s oldest friend, Arthur Greeves, was not a learned man, but in a certain kind of reading he was Lewis’s teacher — a fact often acknowledged, in letters and also in the pages of Surprised by Joy:

In literature he influenced me more, or more permanently, than I did him. His great defect was that he cared very little for verse. Something 1 did to mend this, but less than I wished. He, on the other hand, side by side with his love for myth and marvel, which I fully shared, had another taste which I lacked till I met him and with which, to my great good, he infected me for life. This was the taste for what he called “the good, solid, old books,” the classic English novelists. It is astonishing how I had avoided them before I met Arthur. I had been persuaded by my father to read The Newcomes when I was rather too young for it and never tried Thackeray again till I was at Oxford…. Of [Sir Walter] Scott I knew only a few of the medieval, that is, the weakest, novels. Under Arthur’s influence I read at this time all the best Waverleys, all the Brontes, and all the Jane Austens. They provided an admirable complement to my more fantastic reading, and each was the more enjoyed for its contrast to the other. The very qualities which had previously deterred me from such books Arthur taught me to see as their charm. What I would have called their “stodginess” or “ordinariness” he called “Homeliness” — a key word in his imagination. He did not mean merely Domesticity, though that came into it. He meant the rooted quality which attaches them to all our simple experiences, to weather, food, the family, the neighborhood. He could get endless enjoyment out of the opening sentence of Jane Eyre, or that other opening sentence in one of Hans Andersen’s stories, “How it did rain, to be sure.” The mere word “beck” in the Brontes was a feast to him; and so were the schoolroom and kitchen scenes. This love of the “Homely” was not confined to literature; he looked for it in out-of-door scenes as well and taught me to do the same.

Decades before writing Surprised by Joy Lewis had recorded this very experience in a letter to Arthur that moves easily from the comfort-food of the Victorian novelists to the world of “myth and marvel” that he and Arthur loved equally:

How many books seem to promise such a lot at the start and then turn out disappointing. Whereas good, stodgy books like Scott have all their interesting parts in the middle and begin with reams of dry-as-dust. Talking about stodge, I finished ‘The Newcomes’ before leaving home, and certainly enjoyed the end better than any parts except the scenes at Baden. Of course it is a great novel, but I am very thankful to have got it off my chest. I should advise you to get the 2/6 volume containing Milton’s minor poems, which I am now reading: I am sure they are better to begin on than [Paradise Lost.] I am now at ‘Comus’, which is an absolute dream of delight. I am sure you would love it: it is like a play written on an episode from the Faerie Queene, all magic and distressed ladies and haunted woods. It is lovely in books the way you can just turn from one sort of beauty to another and never get tired.

4. New Horizons

All his life Lewis seems to have loved books that made him think thoughts that he never could have come up with on his own. One of the chief and most serious powers of books, for him, was this ability to open new horizons. And those horizons could be imaginative, moral, religious — he rejoiced in the exposure to unexpected thoughts about almost anything. As an adolescent he had read the science-fiction novels of H. G. Wells with great pleasure, but ignored Wells’s more strictly “literary” fiction — until the experience he described to Arthur Greeves in February of 1920:

You will be surprised when you hear how I employed the return journey – by reading an H. G. Wells novel called ‘Marriage’, and perhaps more surprised when I say that I thoroughly enjoyed it; one thing you can say for the man is that he really is interested in all the big, outside questions – and the characters are intensely real, especially a Mr Pope who reminds me of Excellenz. It opens new landscapes to me – how one felt that on finding that a new kind of book was waiting for one, in the old days – and I have decided to read some more of his serious books. It is funny that I – and perhaps you – read the old books for pleasure and always turn to contemporaries with the notion of ‘improving my mind’. With most, I fancy, the direct opposite is so.

The new landscapes could also be — especially as, in his late twenties, he began to reconsider his long-standing atheism — spiritual in nature. Again to Arthur:

In the evening I started to read the Everyman volume of Jacob Boehme which I had ordered sometime ago. The Dialogue at the end, called the Supersensual Life, was fairly easy going, and I should advise you to get and read it at once. Then I turned back and began the longer work, the Signatura Rerum. I could see at once that I was reading the most serious attempt I had ever met to describe (not to explain, for he speaks as one who has seen and his description is his explanation) – to describe the very mystery of creation and to show you the differences actually coming into being out of the original One and making a world and souls and good and evil. Almost at the same time, I saw, alas, that it was hopelessly beyond me: yet tantalising for I could just grasp enough to be quite sure that he was talking about something tremendously real, and not merely mystifying you. […]

In the meantime, I wish to record that it has been about the biggest shaking up I’ve got from a book, since I first read Phantastes. It is not such a pleasant experience as Phantastes, and if it continues to give me the same feeling when I understand more I shall give it up. No fooling about for me: and I keep one hand firmly gripped round the homely & simple things. But it is a real book: i.e. it’s not like a book at all, but like a thunderclap. Heaven defend us–what things there are knocking about the world!

We saw in an earlier chapter Lewis’s early lack of interest in literary fiction — partly cured by Arthur’s recommendation of the “homely” English novelists — so Arthur must have been deeply interested in how utterly Lewis was bowled over when he read War and Peace for the first time:

The most interesting thing that has happened to me since I last wrote is reading War and Peace – at least I am now in the middle of the 4th and last volume so I think, bar accidents, I am pretty sure to finish it. It has completely changed my view of novels. Hitherto I had always looked on them as rather a dangerous form – I mean dangerous to the health of literature as a whole. I thought that the strong ‘narrative lust’ – the passionate itch to ‘see what happened in the end’ – which novels aroused, necessarily injured the taste for other, better, but less irresistible, forms of literary pleasure: and that the growth of novel reading largely explained the deplorable division of readers into low-brow and high-brow – the low being simply those who had learned to expect from books this ‘narrative lust’, from the time they began to read, and who had thus destroyed in advance their possible taste for better things.

Tolstoy, in this book, has changed all that. I have felt everywhere – in a sense – you will know what I mean – that sublime indifference to the life or death, success or failure, of the chief characters, which is not a blank indifference at all, but almost like submission to the will of God. Then the variety of it. The war parts are just the best descriptions of war ever written: all the modern war books are milk and water to this: then the rural parts – lovely pictures of village life and of religious festivals in wh. the relations between the peasants and the nobles almost make you forgive feudalism: the society parts, in which I was astonished to find so much humour – there is a great hostess who always separates two guests when she sees them getting really interested in conversation, who is almost a Jane Austen character.

And if Lewis was willing to let Arthur’s preference for novels shape his interests, increase the range of his literary experience, he in turn sought to encourage Arthur to expand his reach beyond the nineteenth and twentieth centuries — and in so doing offers a wonderful brief course in the pleasures and challenges of reading old books:

Well, for one thing, remember that nearly all your reading is confined to about 150 years of one particular country: this is no disgrace to you, most people’s circle is far smaller. But still, compared with the world this one little period of English literature is very small, and tho’ you (and I of course) are so accustomed to the particular kinds of art we find inside it, yet we must remember that there are an infinite variety outside it, quite as good in different ways. And so, if you suddenly go back to an Anglo-Saxon gleeman’s lay, you come up against something absolutely different – a different world. If you are to enjoy it, you must forget your previous ideas of what a book should be and try and put yourself back in the position of the people for whom it was first made. When I was reading it I tried to imagine myself as an old Saxon thane sitting in my hall of a winter’s night, with the wolves & storm outside and the old fellow singing his story. In this way you get the atmosphere of terror that runs through it – the horror of the old barbarous days when the land was all forests and when you thought that a demon might come to your house any night & carry you off.

5. Re-Reading

Lewis’s letters are full of accounts of the re-reading of his favorite books — a habit that those for whom adding to their list of Books Read is a major incentive to picking up a book cannot readily understand. For Lewis it was a practice so deeply ingrained that he felt it had to be restrained. When he reviewed The Lord of the Rings (which perhaps he should not in good conscience have done, given his intimacy with its author, but we’ll set that aside for now) he commented that “the book is too original and too opulent for any final judgment on a first reading. But we know at once that it has done things to us. We are not quite the same men. And though we must ration ourselves in our re-readings, I have little doubt that the book will soon take its place among the indispensables.” The custom of “rationing” re-readings is one that Lewis may have honored more in the breach than the observance, as his letters amply attest.

In the passage from The Allegory of Love I quote in the Preface — the one on his love for the Italian romantic epic — Lewis mentions the pleasure of being “always convalescent from some small illness,” and it was a pleasure he rarely denied himself if he could help it: to judge by his letters, he was “down with the flu” every other month or so. And in those times he was especially prone to indulge himself in the sport of re-reading old favorites, as he explained to Arthur:

Seriously, unless it is [a] very painful or oppressive illness I always get some pleasure out of ‘keeping my bed’. Especially if you are sick enough to have a fire! There is something beautifully cosy about meals brought up on a tray, and after a frugal but thoroughly enjoyable breakfast I love to pile up my pillows, call for a choice pile of bright volumes and settle down to an endless read: if there be snow falling so much the better. I say ‘bright volumes’ advisedly, because all books are not suitable for bed reading. Books of the ‘Phantastes’ & ‘Crock of Gold’ type are best; some new ones if possible, several old favourites, a trashy novel from the library (trashy, but not bad, if you know what I mean) AND some picture books of the Rackham & Robinson type. I should find ‘Jason’ very good company too. By the way don’t imagine I’m trotting all this out as sort of ‘advice to invalids’: its only that the subject naturally came up & I couldn’t lose an opportunity of airing my own tastes.

To his father in May of 1929, he wrote mentioning Scott, who by this time had become a particular favorite:

I hope your recovery from the winter ’flu has been permanent. My own prolonged cold, having lasted out the term, worked up into a sore throat and temperature and a few days in bed about Easter time. This finally got rid of the trouble and was not unpleasant. It gave me the excuse to be idle and the chance to re-read some old favourites – including The Antiquary. Read The Antiquary. I think it contains the cream of Scott’s humour and very nearly the cream of his tragedy.

And then to his brother fewer than three years later:

I have now been in my room for precisely a week. It has been an ideal illness. My little east room, as you know, gives one two views – one over to Philips an t’other up to the top wood – and the grate does not smoke. Most of the week there has been snow falling during some part of the day– wh. is just the finishing touch to a comfortable day’s reading in bed. I have re-read three Scotts…. Finally The Antiquary for about the fifth time, wh. I have almost fixed on as the Scott novel. I have read it so often that I do not remember at which reading I ceased to regard Mr. Oldbuck as ‘a character’ and began to think him (as I now do) simply the one sensible man in the book, living as any rational man would live if he were given peace.