At the persistent recommendations of some trusted friends, I have finally set my hands upon C.S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism. Two and a half days has got me over half way through – the book is a quicker read than I expected, due in part to Lewis’ customary conciseness and in other part to his customary ability to better state and explain ideas that I have also entertained for some time but that have never quite received the clarity and analysis they deserve. In short, I feel as though this book were written to me. “Yes,” I say to myself as I read it, “Of course,” “Sadly, that’s right,” and, blessedly, “Ah, I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
So, in a series of posts, I will be presenting to you the essential ideas Lewis discusses, along with my own thoughts and commentaries.
The Few and the Many
Lewis’ experiment is essentially this: to examine different types of reading, and to see what this tells us about types of readers and types of books.
Let us try to discover how far it might be plausible to define a good book as a book which is read in one way, and a bad book as a book which is read in another.
He immediately begins using “the majority” and “the few” to distinguish between the two primary groups of readers. Later on he becomes more specific and begins to define his terms, an exercise very important if he is to avoid over-generalization and snobbery. But for the beginning, the broadness of these terms will suffice. “The majority” are the mass of people who use books primarily or solely for some other ultimate goal: entertainment, distraction, knowledge, social acceptance, etcetera. “The few” are those for whom the act of reading books is more than just these goals, and is a passionate, vital activity on its own merits. Such is my paraphrasing.
To quickly sketch the two groups for us, Lewis notes four broad differences between them.
…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…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.
I think it is fair to acknowledge that many book-lovers greatly desire to reread good books, but, due to the circumstances of their lives, have not the time. Still, a “true reader” will have this desire, and, have they the ability, will reread the books that mean something good to them. Now, at this time, Lewis is not defining what a great book is or what a bad book is, objectively. He is concerned with how readers value books.
I, for example, am most certainly a rereader. Sometimes I will reread an older book instead of starting one I have just bought. I get worried if it’s been too long since I’ve read a certain book. My favorite books have been read at least three times, if not more, and I always part from them unwillingly, consoling myself with the promise of future meetings. Their crucial value, for me, is not in their plot, though they may have excellent ones that I love and admire, for after the first time through I know what happens well enough. If a book’s chief value was in the information it imparts, I should never reread it unless I had forgotten the information. Nor is their value chiefly in the emotions they make me feel, though emotions enrich the experience, for these are transitory.
Rereading a book is not the same thing as reminiscing about a memory. There are superficial similarities, but while memories fade and become distorted over time, a reread book grows stronger and truer in the mind. No, the true value in rereading any good book is something deeper than these. At the moment it is beyond my words to fully explain, but I hope Lewis will succeed in pinpointing it more clearly. But I suspect it has a lot to do with relationships. What is true life but relationships between persons? In literature, I meet not only characters, but also authors, and places, and beautiful words with beautiful meanings, and all of these become friends. Friends different from those I know in person, but no less true in their value.
2) The value given to the act of reading.
…the majority, though 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…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.
So true! A persistent sorrow in my life is the lack of a really good reading space. I fall asleep on couches and beds, while the kitchen chairs are a tad too uncomfortable. I’ve tried going to the library to read, but it’s always too loud (Why don’t librarians shush anymore? I thought that was in the job description!). The best place, I think, is the small “library” at my tiny church. I run it, and we’re so small that it’s not much used, so a few times I have gone there on a Saturday or weekday just to read, leaning back in one firmly padded chair while resting my feet on another, and reading by the windowlight. It’s so peaceful that sometimes it does lull me into a pleasant doze, but generally I’m propped upright enough that I can get some very good reading done.
3) The first reading of a book.
…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…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.
To be honest, the intensity of the experience varies based on the quality of the book. My first reading of a Dirk Pitt novel may be exciting because I don’t know the plot, but it hardly evokes strong feelings in me. But after the first chapter of Airman I could already tell that I was in for a truly delightful, rip-roaring adventure told by someone as in love with breathless exploits and good words as I was, and with the talent to pull it off; thus, I was giddy, almost goose-bumpy, as I read it. Again, reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time is a revelation, especially if it is encountered before all the fantasy novels that it inspired. And then, finding The Silmarillion, and Unfinished Tales, and the Books of Lost Tales, and The Children of Hurin, each when you’d thought the previous was the last work of Tolkien that existed, is nothing short of bliss.
The mere suggestion that many other people do not have this kind of experience when first reading a book, even an excellent book, makes me very sad.
4) Post-reading memory.
In short, the many tend to forget much of what they read, and seldom care to talk about it. The few, the book lovers, “mouth over their favourite lines and stanzas in solitude,” and seek out other book-lovers with whom to share their reading experiences.
This final point reminds me of why I started this blog in the first place. Well, of the better reason, the one that has paid off. The first reason was to keep my analytical mind sharp and my creative mind working with words, to stave off the mental atrophy that I feared after graduating college. But this other reason is to connect with readers with whom I can share my reading experiences that matter most.
It is with pleasure, pride, and much gratitude that I look over my blog and the comments it has received and believe my efforts worthwhile.
Thank you, all you who comment and read on my site, for being this success. I can do without fame, but would be a fool not to seek out friends and love them when I find them. Especially genuine lovers of reading.