“An Experiment in Criticism” by C.S. Lewis, Chapter 1

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.

Chapter 1

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.

1) Rereading.

…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.


  1. mjschneider says:

    Hear, hear! I haven’t yet read “An Experiment in Criticism,” but I have a passing familiarity with Lewis’s thoughts on the matter of Reading, and one of the reasons I love his criticism is that he takes his literature and his reading very seriously, but not humorlessly. His clarity is not necessarily sobriety. The joy he takes in the written word is apparent in the way he discusses it… with the written word. If your measure of success for your blog is whether or not you successfully communicate that same joy, then your blog has been a success, because it is apparent to me that you take your reading seriously in the same way Lewis does.

    Another thought about Lewis as critic: how many other critics make you feel better about yourself for having read them? I read a lot of great critics every day, but there aren’t too many who seem to assume that the reader is their equal in passion or intelligence. Even if I fall short of Lewis’s standards, I feel like his criticism is a band-aid for a skinned knee, rather than a lecture berating me for my clumsiness. I envy his ability to do that, because I simply cannot.

    1. David says:

      Your kindness is much appreciated! I am pleased that the blogs I’m drawn to and the bloggers (and others!) who keep visiting me all seem to be uniformly excellent readers.

      I agree, Lewis has a natural tact about him that seems to spring from his respect for his readers, and not to be forced in any way. Some have accused him (gently or not) of academic elitistism in various issues, probably because he insists on calling some things unequivocally good and others bad. But a truly elitist writer writes only to his chosen group, and should he deign to address the lesser crowds it will likely be apparent in his voice. Lewis always seems to be addressing anyone at all who is genuinely interested in his subject matter. You must approach him in honesty and humility, looking to receive his book without prior judgment, but — as he himself is saying — that is how we should approach any book, and indeed any person!

  2. Yes! I often have the dilemma of choosing between a new book I’ve been wanting to read…and all my old friends that deserve to be read indefinitely. There’s simply not enough time.

    There are also some books that NEED to be read a second time, at least–ones that reveal the answer to some mystery at the end. The first time, you have the joy of discovering the answer. The second time, you have the joy of discovering all the little clues the author planted. Of course I can’t think of an example right now.

    1. David says:

      Oh certainly, good mysteries, or any good complicated plot, will often benefit from rereads in order to make you certain of various clues and twists. But also the simpler fare, like Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth, generously rewards rereading, because you start to notice all sorts of subtle character details and observations she slips in. The mere anticipation of such a harvest entices me to long to be reading her whenever I’m not!

  3. Urania says:

    Yay! As I recall, a significant part of what Lewis believes makes books rereadable is what he calls “atmosphere” in his essay “On Stories,” which I started rereading tonight.

    Also, as Milton might say (or rather did say, in that one poem that I am reading) “fit audience find, though few”!

    1. David says:

      He tries to define it here, too, though still vaguely. He speaks of the “feel” of a book reflecting the “feel” of the author’s view of life. This seem to make sense, although lesser books may not communicate well the author’s worldview.

  4. Excellent post, first of all.

    I think you’re spot-on about the real value in rereading good books. It is more a relationship than anything else, and like any other good relationship, it is difficult to say good-bye. The best thing about these book relationships, though, is that whenever you want to refresh the friendship and camaraderie, they’re right there waiting for you.

    And I too, am saddened by the knowledge that many people will never experience the exhilaration and bliss of entering an incredible literary world.

    1. David says:

      Aye! The books that are most friendly like that, to me, are those by Sutcliff. Reading but a page of her is like settling into a comfy chair across from an old best friend for a night of storytelling and reminiscing. To me, at least. Lewis is like that too, since his “voice” is always present whenever he writes. It’s never quite a substitute for meeting the author in person, but you are still getting to know them.

  5. A. Setliffe says:

    *sighs* yet another Lewis to read. I wish there was an alternate universe I could step into, where time stands still and I could read… of course if there were, I might never leave, which would be bad.

    I keep thinking I ought to find a book-club, as discussing books with friends is difficult when we aren’t reading the same things, but none of the book clubs around me read what I want to read. I’ve thought about forming one, but my friends all have such crazy schedules. hmmph.

    1. David says:

      Aye, and my bookish friends are mostly on the other side of the country. At least with a blog, folks can browse to find books they’ve read, although many might not read reviews of books they haven’t read yet.

      Sometimes I think that’s what I’d do if I had the Tardis. Aside from visiting historical time periods, I’d probably just use the extra time to read. Of course, this is assuming I also have a Time Lords lifespan. But anyway, I like how they’ve made the Doctor well read.

  6. jrlookingbill says:

    Concerning rereading and memory, I ‘m reminded of when, in ‘Out of the Silent Planet’, Hyoi tells ransom, “a pleasure is only full grown when it is remembered.”

    I think this applies well to reading for ‘the few’; at this very moment it is too long since last I read the Silmarilion, the Confessions of Augustine, the Great Divorce, and more others than I care to think of (as I’m plodding through three works at the moment).

    The last is the better half of why I blog: in hopes of sharing readings with others who are not only informed by them, but add to and amend them for this is dis-course at its finest. The other is only so I ‘ll have some traces of prior thoughts by which to access prior readings and/or musings.

    1. David says:

      I agree. My memory really isn’t that great, so it’s vital that I keep some record of thoughts or information I consider important.

  7. MikeS says:

    Hi Folks!

    I’m currently working on a project on Mervyn Peake – he of the Gormenghast trilogy – and apparently there are references in An Experiment in Criticism to some of his works. I haven’t been able to get a copy at my local library so was wondering if sby could let me know which of Peake’s works are referenced by C. S. Lewis in this book and, if it’s not too much trouble, what is said about them. Thanks in advance for your help…


    PS: Does anybody know of an eg .pdf version of An Experiment in Criticism that is available on line???

    1. David says:

      That sounds familiar but I can’t recall specifically if he did reference Gormenghast. Strangely enough I don’t own An Experiment in Criticism yet; a fact which will one day be remedied. It’s not too difficult to get, though. Any library worth its salt should have it, and Amazon sells it for $12.99, cheaper if you go used. It’s definitely a book worth owning. I did find an excerpt from Chapter 1 in pdf form for you: http://www.langtoninfo.com/web_content/9780521422819_excerpt.pdf. Perhaps you can find more of it through Google. But I’d recommend laying hands on the book itself.

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