Reading: A Pleasure or a Task?
"A man ought to read just as inclination leads him", said Samuel Johnson, "for what he reads as a task will do him little good".
I've been musing over this quotation for years, not sure whether I agree with or not. What does "inclination" mean anyway?
A man might feel an inclination to go on a ten-mile uphill hike. Four miles into the hike, he might feel an inclination to quit, while still feeling his initial inclination to go on the hike. In other words, the two inclinations clash. Surely this is not an uncommon scenario. We feel conflicted between pleasures perhaps as often as we feel conflicted between duties, or between a duty and a pleasure. (Another hour in bed, or catch the hotel breakfast buffet before it closes?)
I think that most of the reading I've done in my life has been done contrary to inclination, in the narrowest sense. I have persisted with many, many books out of a desire to see the thing through, or a feeling that I should know about the subject, or a hope that the pay-off would come later.
There are only a handful of writers who I have ever read with pure and unmitigated pleasure, and C.S. Lewis is one of them. This despite the fact that I think Lewis's writings have been much more beneficial to me than many authors I read with grim determination.
Of course, I am not alone in this passion for Lewis. He is one of those writers (like G.K. Chesterton) who have fans rather than readers. People read him, not just for amusement or self-improvement, but because he expresses their deepest feelings and convictions, and because the atmosphere of his books is so congenial to them.
They read him, too, because he gives them arguments to defend the things they believe in, or arguments in favour of things they wish to believe in. I'm not just talking about Christianity, though his defence of Christianity is obviously crucial to his appeal. Like Chesterton, he defends a whole way of looking at the world that has been somewhat out of favour since the mid-twentieth century at least (though no doubt it is a historical latecomer itself).
It is a view of the world, or perhaps a sensibility, that is romantic, respectful of tradition, anti-elitist, hearty, shuns crudity and indecency, and is distrustful of flashiness and novelty. Admirers of Chesterton and Lewis would describe such a view of the world as "common sense", or "sanity"; though of course, to describe it as such is begging the question.
I don't think it would be fair to assume, though, that people return to Lewis just because they agree with him, or because he parrots their prejudices. Anybody could do that. There are plenty of Christian writers out there, but readers don't read and re-read their books with the same avidity they show towards those of Lewis.
So why do we keep revisiting this guy?
First of all, he was a fine writer. The fact that his readers are not drawn to him out of pure disinterested love of good prose doesn't mean that the good prose isn't a big factor.
Perhaps his most important strength as a prose stylist was his sheer clarity. He once compared a writer to a farmer leading sheep along a country path, having to make sure that there are no gates open to left or right that the sheep might wander through. Hardly flattering to the reader, perhaps-- but I wish more writers were so condescending. (Interestingly, Lewis once lamented the modern tendency to use the word "condescending" in an exclusively pejorative way).
From Narnia to Now
I am a twice-born fan of Lewis. In my teens, I was a keen admirer of his Narnia books, though I remember being very distressed when I came to The Last Battle, with its rather startling and uncompromising plot twists.
I don't remember very much about why I loved Narnia. I can remember very little of the stories themselves. When I started re-reading them, very recently, they were more or less new to me. Sad to say, I also found them rather dull, and gave up on the third book.
It's hard to tell for sure, since I am not one of those adults with the gift of recalling their childhood vividly, but I think my grown-up enjoyment of Lewis is much keener than my childhood enjoyment of Narnia.
It might be expected that I discovered Lewis's non-fiction writings when I began to practice my faith, or in the time of searching that so often precedes a conversion. But such is not the case. I wasn't thinking about Christianity at all when I developed an adult enthusiasm for Lewis. It was his critical and philosophical works that drew me in. The Abolition of Man was recommended to my philosophy class by a lecturer (a Catholic priest, incidentally). The rigour of the book's thinking impressed me, though it is not one of my favourites.
But it was a collection of his critical essays that really won me over. Specifically, it was the essay "High and Low Brows". In this piece, Lewis questions the validity of the whole distinction between "serious" literature and mere entertainment. But he does so in a way that is not tub-thumpingly populist or anti-intellectual; one that recognizes that there is indeed a distinction between reading a book for diversion and reading a book in a more meaningful way. I liked Lewis's solution; that it was different kinds of reading, not different kind of book, that mattered. A reader who returns to the same hardboiled detective novel time and again, savouring its atmosphere and its dialogue afresh each time, is reading in a "literary" way-- the poseur who forces himself to get through Finnegans Wake, suffering all the way, is not. This struck me as being something I'd always thought, without being able to articulate it even in my own mind.
The other essays in the book were equally eye-opening. An essay on psycho-analysis in literary criticism demolished the idea that literature was mere wish-fulfilment, or an expression of repressed sexual urges. I admired how Lewis achieved this; patiently, calmly, without any sneering or guffawing. The civility of his tone, and the readiness to take his opponents' views seriously, is a great part of the appeal of his writings.
How often do you find a Christian writing something like this (a made-up example):
In our day, the whole notion of "sin" has become unmentionable, almost an embarrassment. The scientific method is taken to be the only route by which we can arrive at knowledge; intuitions which mankind have cherished for generations are laughed to scorn. The narrative in which our time is framed is the continual triumph of evidence-based thinking over faith and "superstition". Only that which we can measure, manipulate, use is accorded any importance. We have become very good at asking the question "How?", and forgotten the question, "Why?"-- or refused to accept that there is such a question.
What is this kind of rhetoric apart from reverse sarcasm (after the model of "reverse racism")? Simply summarising a set of beliefs or assumptions in an antagonistic tone is not to argue against them, or even to begin to argue against them. Wallowing in the fact that secularists sneer at Christianity (or wallowing in the fact that any particular philosophy is unfashionable or subject to hostility) is not to defend it. Just as left-wing people believe that they have disposed of some theory when they label it "reactionary", those of a more conservative bent often seem to think that shouting "political correctness!" is a winning argument. Of course, it's not an argument at all.
Lewis doesn't do that. The gentlemanly tone of his works is a welcome tonic, after the shrillness of so many other controversialists. Perhaps the best example of this is the address he made to a Pacifist Society during World War Two. In hindsight, it seems probable that the pacifists were right and Lewis was wrong, but that doesn't take away from the courteousness of his address. "I do not intend", he said, "to join in any of the jibes to which those of your persuasion are exposed in the popular press. Let me say at the outset that I think it unlikely there is anyone present less courageous than myself." This is the tone of most of his controversial writings (I mean "controversial" in the sense of "entering into a controversy", rather than "acrimonious").
That last quotation displays another characteristic that, I believe, endears Lewis to his dedicated readers; his modesty. Modesty, like chastity, is a virtue that it is easy to make a case against-- it seems to sail close to lying, or even hypocrisy, when it's a matter of making light of your own accomplishments. But we can't help feeling the charm of modesty when we do meet it. It is like walking on springy turf or breathing crisp, clean air. I think it is one of the distinctively Christian virtues, though not at all exclusive to Christians.
But there is more to Lewis's appeal even than that.
Perhaps the heart of Lewis's enchantment is that nobody has written so eloquently or so articulately about what he called Joy.
The famous words from his sermon, The Weight of Glory, are almost painfully exciting: "“In speaking of this...I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—- the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both...
...That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World's End, the opening lines of "Kubla Khan", the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves."
This is it, isn't it? This is at the heart, not only of Lewis's appeal, but (I dare to say) of the mystery of all our lives. I can speak for myself and say that this is what I am always chasing, the will-o'-the-wisp that draws me on.
I sometimes think that the strongest argument for God, with most religious believers, is this inescapable sense of something more-- this sense of being haunted by an indescribable ecstasy, one that we can only glimpse from afar-off and for the briefest of moments, but of which we are never entirely oblivious. Life, we feel, is about something.
The English columnist Peter Hitchens, an Anglican, often quotes a line from Philip Larkin in trying to express this feeling: "The trees are coming into leaf, like something almost being said." Larkin was a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, but I think Hitchens is quite right to quote these lines as an evocation of religious feelings. How many of us believe in God mostly because of this very feeling-- that when we look at the world around us, we get an undeniable sense of "something almost being said"?
And nobody wrote as much or as penetratingly about this sensation-- perhaps I might risk saying, this awareness-- as C.S. Lewis. Despite my loss of interest in the Narnia books, it's easy to understand why that image of Lucy pushing through the fur coats in the wardrobe and emerging into the snow of a magical world is so potent, and so unforgettable.
But let us turn for a moment from the most lyrical parts of that passage, to the one that might be easily passed over-- "I feel a certain shyness...I am almost committing an indecency...we grow awkward and affect to laugh". Strange as it might seem, I think this shyness, this awkwardness, is also a big part of Lewis's appeal.
We love C.S. Lewis because he is a romantic, but not a cissy. The man who wrote the impossibly haunting passage above was not a mincing aesthete but a loud, bluff, avuncular, hearty fellow who was described, again and again, as looking like a farmer. We cannot read his books without thinking of the pipe, the booming laugh, the shabby furniture in his rooms, the pots of beer in the Eagle and Child pub, the long country walks, the mischievous sense of humour.
One might argue that all of this was somewhat affected in itself-- and indeed, some of it was. But it was affected in the right direction. I don't at all blame Lewis for distancing himself as much as possible from the world of pale poets and studiously refined men of letters. He showed that a man could be otherworldly without being effeminate or snobbish-- an example that shouldn't be needed, perhaps, but which various accidents of history and culture have rendered necessary.
I think Lewis himself would probably have lamented that something of a cult of personality has grown around him. Nobody was more insistent upon the need for self-forgetfulness, on "getting oneself out of the way", whether in literary appreciation or in the Christian life. Nobody laid more stress on attending to the theme of a writer rather than the writer's own biography or personality. When he described his much-loved tutor, W.T. Kirkpatrick, in his spiritual memoir Surprised by Joy, he paid him a typical compliment when he said: "Here was a man who thought not about you but about what you said."
But, really, Lewis has nobody but himself to blame for this cult. He poured his personality into his works. He regularly used anecdotes and examples from his own life. As soon as he converted to Christianity, he made a start upon writing his spiritual autobiography; its first draft was an allegory, Pilgrim's Regress, but its final fruit was his masterpiece, Surprised by Joy, which is a truly intimate self-portrait.
My second-favourite of his works, Miracles, begins: "I have known only one person in my life who claimed to have seen a ghost." The personal note is typical.
As well as this, there is a chumminess about his prose style which inevitably makes us feel a certain personal connection to him. George Orwell (who could never really warm to any Christian who took the supernatural seriously) had this to say about Lewis's prose style, in his review of the book Beyond Personality:
One must make some allowance for the fact that these essays are reprinted broadcasts, but even on the air it is not really necessary to insult your hearers with homely little asides like "you know" and "mind you", or Edwardian slang like "awfully", "jolly well", "specially" for "especially", "awful cheek", and so forth. The idea, of course, is to persuade the suspicious reader, or listener, that one can be a Christian and a "jolly good chap" at the same time.
Of course, Lewis's style was not always so colloquial, but it was never impersonal, even in his critical writings. You cannot read his books without feeling that he is speaking to you. I feel that this was part of his art, and therefore that the distinction between the writer and his writing cannot, in his case, be a stark one, whatever he might have argued himself.
My Favourite C.S. Lewis Books
I have found myself, in this article, writing many hundreds of words on the appeal of C.S. Lewis, while hardly mentioning any of his works by title. This is not such a fault as it might be, since I am mostly writing for those who are already familiar with the great man's work. (I know how hopelessly inadequate this article would be as an introduction to Lewis.) But fans are always eager to compare notes, and I should therefore make some brief and belated mention of which Lewis books I prize the most.
I have no hesitation in naming my overall favourite. I think Surprised by Joy is Lewis's masterpiece, both as a work of apologetics and a work of art. Miracles would come next. Undeceptions: Essays on Theology and Ethics is a collection that helped me a lot as I made my way towards Christian belief, and one I always read with pleasure. Out of the Silent Planet is the only work of Lewis's fiction that I really enjoy, as it never really gets boring. (For all their brilliance, I am not enamoured of The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, Pilgrim's Regress or any of his other "theological fiction"-- I find the fictional device tiresome in every case, and wish they had been written as essays instead. As for Perelandra and That Hideous Strength, I found them both excessively ponderous. I have not read any of his other adult novels.) I think Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer is an underappreciated work, while The Four Loves and A Grief Observed are rather overpraised. For some reason, I have avoided reading The Problem of Pain. I think all the ideas in Mere Christianity are developed to greater effect elsewhere.
I love almost all of his essays. I would give special mention to "High and Lows Brows", "Hamlet: the Prince or the Poem?", "Psycho-analysis and Literary Criticism", "Two Ways with the Self", "The Weight of Glory", "Priestesses in the Church", "Meditation in a Toolshed" (great title, that), "The Decline of Religion", "The Sermon and the Lunch", "What Christmas Means to Me", "Membership", "The Efficacy of Prayer", "Myth become Fact", "Will we Lose God in Outer Space?", "On Stories", and "On Obstinacy in Belief".
When it comes to his weightier scholarly works, I recently read my way through all of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. Parts of it are tough going, especially when he is (with obvious reluctance) working his way through lists of very forgettable period writers. But when he warms to his subject, it is first-rate stuff. A Preface to Paradise Lost is insightful all the way through, and the chapter on Satan is one of the most profound meditations on evil that I have ever read. (Who can forget the line: "What we see in Satan is the horrible co-existence of a subtle and incessant intellectual activity with an incapacity to understand anything"? Or, "In the midst of a world of light and love, of song and feast and dance...[he] could find nothing to think of more interesting than his own prestige"?) I never finished The Discarded Image, but I can't remember why I put it down, as I do remember enjoying it. Spenser's Images of Life is more a collection of lecture notes than a book, but it has some very powerful passages. As with all of Lewis's literary criticism, it is far more than a mere meditation upon a particular text. An Experiment in Criticism, I feel, is an unnecessary elaboration of High and Low Brows, and in this work I do feel that Lewis errs in the direction of intellectual snobbery.
By now I have probably enraged all the Lewisians who may have been pleased with me until I started critiquing individual works. But then, aren't the most heated disagreements between those who are fundamentally of the same mind? Civil wars are notoriously bitter, as are family feuds.
All I can do is beg forgiveness for my taste, doubtless flawed and ill-educated, and ask any Lewis admirers who have been offended by my dismissal of their favourite book to remember that, after all, we are close enough to being kindred spirits.