Monday, October 28, 2013

CS Lewis on books and reading

This one's for lovers of CS Lewis and books.

Here are CS Lewis' thoughts on novels, the hard work of reading, the benefits of re-reading, and the joy of writing in books.

You'll also find some reflections on Tolkien, Tolstoy, William Morris, George MacDonald, and more.

These quotes are from the letters of CS Lewis to Arthur Greeves.

(And by the way, I love novels. You'll know why I said that in a second...)
The most interesting thing that has happened to me since I last wrote is reading War and Peace ... 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. I also thought that the intense desire which novels rouse in us for the 'happiness' of the chief characters (no one feels that way about Hamlet or Othello) and the  selfishness with which this happiness is concerned, were thoroughly bad (I mean, if the hero and heroine marry, that is felt to be a happy ending, though everyone else in the story is left miserable: if they don't that is an unhappy ending, though it may mean a much greater good in some other way). Of course I knew there were tragic novels like Hardy's - but somehow they were quite on a different plane from real tragedies. Tolstoy, in this book, has changed all that. (410)
On hard work in reading, light books, and re-reading:
I know well from experience that state of mind in which one wants immediate and certain pleasure from a book, for nothing - i.e. without paying the price of that slight persistence, that almost imperceptible tendency not to go on, which, to be honest, nearly always accompanies the reading of a good book. Not only accompanies by the way, but actually makes part of the pleasure. A little sense of labour is necessary to all perfect pleasure I think. ...When I am in that state of mind I want not so much a grown-up "light" book (to me usually the hardest of all kinds of reading) as a boy's book; - distant lands, strange adventures ... Perhaps re-reading an old friend ... is the best of all. I don't think you re-read enough - I know I do it too (436) much. (10/1/1932 435)
On writing in complex books:
Too enjoy a book like that [Froissart's Chroniques] thoroughly I find I have to treat it as a sort of hobby and set about it seriously. I begin by making a map on one of the end leafs: then I put in a genealogical tree or two. Then I put a running headline at the top of each page: finally I index at the end all the passages I have for any reason underlined. I often wonder ... why so few people make a hobby of their reading in this way. Many an otherwise dull book which I had to read have I enjoyed in this way, with a fine-nibbed pen in my hand: one is making something all the time and a book so read acquires the charm of a toy without losing that of a book. (Feb '32, 438)
On JRR Tolkien,William Morris and George MacDonald:
Since term began I have had a delightful time reading a children's story which Tolkien has just written. I have told of him before: the one man absolutely fitted, if fate had allowed, to be a third in our friendship in the old day, for he also grew up on W. Morris and George Macdonald. Reading his fairy tales has been uncanny - it is so exactly like what we would both have longed to write (or read) in 1916: so that one feels he is not making it up but merely describing the same world into which all three of us have the entry. Whether it is really good (I think it is until the end) is of course another questions: still more, whether it will succeed with modern children. (4/2/33, 449)
On Morris, death and paradise:
If ever you feel inclined to relapse into the mundane point of view - to feel that your book and pipe and chair are enough for happiness - it only needs a page or two of Morris to sting you wide awake into uncontrollable longing and to make you feel that everything is worthless except the hope of finding one of his countries. But if you read any of his romances through you will find the country dull before the end. All he has done is to rouse the desire: but so strongly that you must find the real satisfaction. And then you realise that death is at the root of the whole matter, and why he chose the subject of the Earthly Paradise, and how the true solution is one he never saw. (422)

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