Saturday, May 13, 2006

C.S. Lewis on "Literary" and "Unliterary" Reading

I recently finished reading All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes, by Kenneth Myers. In his book, Myers summarizes part of C.S. Lewis' work An Experiment in Criticism, in which Lewis discusses reading. I thought it an interesting passage in the book, and appropriate given my recent post on reading.

This morning I was reminded of this passage from Myers' book when I was purchasing a book at a garage sale, as the lady from whom I was purchasing the book was surprised to hear that I had already read the book. You're going to read it again?, she asked, explaining that she doesn't reread books because she would get bored. I responded with a "probably," and then clarified that I reread many books - some as many as 20 or 30 times. Admittedly, at times this has proven a waste of time, but with really "good" books, I have found successive readings to be very beneficial. Anyway, this passage from Myers' book came to mind after this morning's encounter:

What marks the different ways of reading? Lewis lists four distinctions between what he calls "literary" and "unliterary" reading.

"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."

Lewis's second point is that unliterary readers generally "do not set much store by reading." Reading is something they do when there is nothing else to do, or to relieve boredom on a train, in a doctor's office, or on nights when they can't sleep. Literary people, on the other hand, "are always looking for leisure and silence in which to read and do so with their who attention."

The third distinction is that a book for the literary can be a deep, profound experience, "an expereince so momentous that only expereinces of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison. Their whole consciousness is changed."

Finally, "what they have read is constantly and prominently present to the mind" of "good" readers. They remember and savor favorite passages. "Scenes and characters from books provide them with a sort of iconography by which they interpret or sum up their experience." Unliterary readers "seldom think or talk about their reading."

I think I'm a mixture of Lewis's two categories, with a heavy lean towards his "literary" category. I break the "literary" mold in a few areas, mainly in that I often read in an occupied room, while pausing to speak with others. I do occasionally wish for solitude in reading, but in general I read with others present. Though I didn't fit one of molds perfectly, I still found it an interesting passage to consider.


Jessica said...

Hmmmm...interesting! I'm definitely a "literary" person...though sometimes I do read in "an occupied room" like you, but solitude is always nice (for reading anyway!).

Anonymous said...

There are some books I have read so many times that they are falling apart. So that I use their fallen out pages to book mark books that haven't quite reached that stage. Anne of Green Gables (& sequels) is one example - drives my husband to distraction. I know that they are really children's books, but I love them. Same with A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Same with Persuasion by Jane Austen or Far from a Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy - wonderful classics. I notice a different thing every time I read. It's like meeting old friends I love.

Susan said...

Mrs. Blythe, the Anne of Green Gables books are so much more than just children's books, so don't feel weird about loving them! In fact, #2-5 and #8 probably wouldn't interest most children. They are so full of truth and beauty and really can't be fully appreciated until adulthood. Some of the best literature is written for children, but it has truth and wisdom for adults as well. That's the mark of true literature. Is there still wisdom to be gleaned with additional reads, and does the draw to a book fade with the passing years, or does it just develop into a different (and deeper) sort of appreciation? :)

Anonymous said...

"They are so full of truth and beauty and really can't be fully appreciated until adulthood." I love that, thank you.

Jessica said...

My poor Anne books are falling apart too!

Susan said...

I have many books that I've read to pieces. I have a few sets of Anne paperbacks, though, so those are still holding up alright. I remember I read my first copy of Calico Captive to pieces. There's no such thing as an old book; there are only well-loved books :).

Jessica said...

Ahhh....Calico Captive...that's SUCH a good book!

zan said...

Oh, wow. "Calico Captive," was a great book. I grew up right near Fort Number 4. We used to go there for picnics. I always was amazed by the Susanna Johnson story. I can't imagine giving birth in the wilderness and in captivity.

Mrs. Blythe,

I adore "Persuasion." It was my favorite Austen book as well as movie.

My Anne books are also falling apart. LM Montgomery is my favorite fiction writer.

Becky Miller said...

I was trying to decide what to blog about I know! Reading! I'm going to send people over here to read your excellent posts on reading.

The other LM Montogomery books are as good as the Anne books. I know, I didn't believe that either till I read some of them this year! The Emily books are excellent, and I'm reading the Pat books now. And The Blue Castle is wonderful.

Susan said...

I believe you about the other L.M. Montgomery books, Becky, because I've read many of them :). The Pat books are so good, but sad :(. Same with Emily. They are very interesting, though. I do like the Anne books best, but it's close! Of all of L.M. Montgomery's characters, I most identify with Pat. I like Anne better, but I'm closer to Pat in more ways.

Oh, and by all means, send people over here. Thanks :).

Sherrin said...

I enjoyed this post - I am one of especially the quote about the experience of reading. Sometimes I go into bookstores and get thrills up my spine just to pick them up! I feel like I've had some of my deepest experiences through reading.

I also love the Anne books, and agree that they are certainly not just children's books!

Adrian C. Keister said...

Ever seen the movie 84 Charing Cross Road? I think you might like it. Good post there, talking about Lewis's An Experiment in Criticism. I quite liked that book; definitely a different perspective.

In Christ.

Susan said...

I haven't seen that movie or even heard of it. I googled it and it sounded interesting. A movie centering on a love of books :). What's not to like? ;)

You've read An Experiment in Criticism? I've only read that excerpt from Myers' book. I'd like to read the entire book sometime. I quite liked the parts Myers quoted.

Adrian C. Keister said...

Reply to Susan.

Yes, you'd absolutely love 84 Charing Cross Road. Maybe you can watch it this weekend.

By all means, add An Experiment in Criticism to your reading list. I have indeed read it, and it is fascinating. The whole basic idea is very intriguing, perhaps mostly because I think it's so much easier to judge books by the measure of readers rather than writers. If Lewis is on to something, then we could have a fantastically easy way to judge books.

In Christ.

Susan said...

Haha. Was this weekend a joke? Yes, maybe I can fit it in between a conference and two sets of guests ;).

I was googling it to see if my public library has it, which they don't. You would think our county library system (which is quite extensive) would be way more impressive in the way of CD's and movies. Unfortunately there aren't many older movies in the system, as they phased out VHS. I did discover the book of the same name. Have you read it, and is it good as well?