Having used the terms “the many” and “the few” to refer to the two broad groups of readers – those who use books for some purpose and those who receive each book for what it is – Lewis immediately points out the many false connotations the terms may have. We must not think of “the many” as the uneducated common man, the “rabble” whose perceived illiteracy some critics think “must make them clumsy and insensitive in all the relations of life and render them a permanent danger to civilization” (5). Rather, these people may have in other aspects of their life – moral, psychological, or pertaining to knowledge, adaptability, great skill, or wisdom – an excellence and care that they simply do not extend to literature. And the literary (Lewis begins to use the term again), “include no small percentage of the ignorant, the caddish, the stunted, the warped, and the truculent” (6). To assume that any person who does not read a book in the best way is somehow inferior in other areas of their life is wholly wrong, and Lewis is right to condemn this prejudice.
In fact, many of the people we most expect to be authorities on literature may not be true bibliophiles – that is, lovers of books. Lewis expresses sympathy for professors who, to keep their jobs, must continually publish articles “which must say, or seem to say, something new about some literary work; or of overworked reviewers, getting through novel after novel as quickly as they can, like a schoolboy doing his ‘prep’. For such people reading often becomes mere work” (7). He tells an anecdote about a fellow colleague, a professor of literature, who, just after having given a tiring exam to his students, was annoyed that Lewis wanted to discuss one of the great poets who was a subject of the exam.
I must pause here to reflect on myself. Many of my classmates would be so sick of a certain book or author whom we’d had to study that they expressed shock or annoyance if I wanted to keep talking about it. It’s completely understandable, because literature courses tend to make reading books a chore and an obligation rather than a joy.
And to Lewis’ point about reviewers I can most certainly relate! It was amusing to read his remark, as I have had to take certain steps to guard myself against falling into this trap; that is, the trap of reading books primarily because I feel an obligation to review them for my blog. My goal with this blog is not to review every fantasy or sci-fi book I read or movie I watch. Sometimes I purposely don’t review a story, and for a variety of reasons: maybe I can’t think of anything worthwhile to say about it, maybe it’s too exhausting to think about, or, often, I’m happier just absorbing the experience of it without having to analyze it. About a week ago I watched (again) one of my favorite movies, The Secret of Roan Inish (1994). Each viewing is as wonderful as the last, excepting the peculiar magic that first viewings and first readings have. Yet I chose to savor the experience, let it work its own way with me, rather than immediately set down to dissect it. I love it so much that I’m sure I will review it eventually, but out of an overwhelming desire to share it, not out of obligation.
Lewis notes other reasons people read a lot yet are not literary in his sense of the word.
- There are, as above, those who are professional readers. Reading and analyzing books is their job, and they are in danger of viewing books merely as fodder for their essays and theories than as worthy objects in their own right.
- There are status seekers, who read only what is fashionable with a certain group in order to be accepted by them.
- There are the devotees of culture, who read in order to improve themselves. This is an interesting group, because such a person is, in a sense, trying to discover what treasures the books hold. However, he is still using the books for a purpose other than themselves. He is likely to stick only to the authors that he has been told are great, and “makes few experiments and has few favorites” (8). This man is not a fool, and he can get much good from reading the right books. But Lewis likens him to a man who plays sports only for the health benefits and not for any joy inherent in the act of playing.
There is nothing wrong with discussing books for one’s job, or with reading a book that is popular, or with seeking out books you think will do you good. Many of us do the latter all the time, and that can be fine and good. But if these are your main reasons for reading, if when you read a book you will only see these things you look for and nothing else, then you are missing something. In all these examples the reader is focused on himself rather than on the book.
One sad result of making English Literature a ‘subject’ at schools and universities is that the reading of great authors is, from early years, stamped upon the minds of conscientious and submissive young people as something meritorious.
For these reasons Lewis does not use the word serious to describe literary people. I’ve been tempted to use the word myself when describing An Experiment in Criticism to other people, but stopped myself for the same reasons Lewis has: the word has two meanings, and the one most commonly assumed is the last one we want.
It may mean, on the one hand, something like ‘grave’ or ‘solemn’; on the other, something more like ‘thoroughgoing, whole-hearted, energetic’…The serious man, far from being a serious student, may be a dabbler and a dilettante. The serious student may be as playful as Mercutio. A thing may be done seriously in the one sense and yet not in the other (11).
It is a terrible thing to approach all literature gravely and solemnly, yet any of us who remember English literature classes in school can relate to the examples he gives. Lewis remembers student essays which gave no indication of the comedy and joy in Jane Austen’s novels, or in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. This is one reason I majored in history instead of literature, even though stories have always been my chief love. I love reading and discussing the books assigned, but rarely did I enjoy writing essays where I was expected to analyze some theme or literary device. By studying history, I was able to read the literature and put it in the context of its time and culture, and to love it more for its own merits rather than for what it supposedly says about “the human condition.”
When I write my reviews, I do not ignore the themes and literary devices of the stories. But my goal is primarily to find out what the writer is saying, and to receive that as best I can. Some stories offer up their key themes as a gift to the reader and viewer. Other stories don’t, and for those I try not to force upon them themes that are not there.
I’m grateful for Lewis’ book. Though I have thought many of the same things many times before, it is helpful to have him clarify, offer examples, and occasionally challenge me. I fear that many of my past readings were unfair to the books, especially to those I read for school. How many authors have been wronged by my unreadiness to hear what they had to say? This is not to imply that every book I have disliked in the past was worthy of my attention. But, looking back, I think there were many that had much good that I did not see, because I was too wrapped up in my own preferences to listen to another mind, another heart, expressing itself.