Monday, August 1, 2016

An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis

Sonata for Piano and Flute by Francis Poulenc is playing.  You can listen here

I am going to have to go on a book fast again.  It's simply getting out of hand.  This has come to my attention when I visit bookstores with my husband and buy books, then return by myself while he's at work and buy more books.

Today I had lunch with a friend.  Next door to the restaurant was a bookstore that was going out of business and clearing out their inventory.  So after lunch we strolled over there to see what might be on sale.

As I walked down the aisle to the Classics section a sales clerk looked at me and asked, "Weren't you here before?"  Unlike St. Peter, I couldn't deny it and nodded in the affirmative.  It was in fact, my third time to visit this particular bookstore in as many days.  Friday I went by myself.  Saturday, Josh and I drove by the sign and he suggested we go in.  Without mentioning that I had already gone, I said, "That's a great idea!" And bought yet another book.  

But I am proud of myself. Today I almost bought a book (George Orwell's 1984, Everyman's Library Hardcover in mint condition) but the sales clerk stopped me.  No, she didn't act as my bartender, telling me I had had one too many.  Instead she informed us (my friend and me) that if we waited a week, the prices were going to sink even lower.

Being the cheapskate that I am, that information gave me enough self-control to hold off buying.  I put Mr. Orwell on a shelf in the teen section between two Zombie novels.  I figure he'd be safe there.  If not, well, it wasn't meant to be.

I also noticed a book by E.M. Forester. It had A Room With a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread.  Now, I have both these books,  but not in the Everyman's Library Hardcover edition (mint condition!).

So we'll give it a week and see what happens.  And after that, the book fast!

On to the book I've just read.  C. S. Lewis was a
Christian apologist, science-fiction and fantasy writer, literary historian, poet, cultural critic, and historian of words.  Thanks to Cleopatra at Classical Carousal, I learned of a collection of his essays that he wrote about reading books.,204,203,200_.jpg

 An Experiment in Criticism is a series of essays that C.S. Lewis wrote about the habits of reading:  why does one read, to what purpose does one read and what kind of taste does one possess that motivates a person to read one sort of book instead of another.

What I like best about Lewis is his ability to perfectly express how I feel about something.  I tend to struggle to find the right words to fully communicate to myself and to others what it is I mean to say or feel about a subject.  If I read Lewis for no other reason it is to feel affirmed that I am not alone in my opinions and that someone has gone before me and already explained it.

No, I am not as smart as C.S. Lewis, but I do feel in good company.

One thing he adequately expressed was people's taste in certain kinds of books.  Once I was at a bookstore with my son and his friends.  One friend was pouring over a book written for Adolescents.  Now I'm not against books written for adolescents; well, actually most of them are tripe (feel free to correct me) but this one was especially tripe-y.  It was poorly written, dreary and just plain mediocre in thought and perspective.  I asked the boy, "Why do you want to read those books (it was a series)?"

He answered, "Because I find them interesting."

Yes. But that didn't really answer my question.  I wanted to know why he found them interesting.  Why did he enjoy reading a book that took you to a very small, unimaginative place.  I suppose if all you've ever eaten are pop tarts, you won't be dissatisfied until you've eaten at a 3 Michelin Star restaurant (if you ever do).  Same goes for our taste in literature.

Lewis tells us that bad taste is by definition, "a taste for bad books" (pg. 1).  He differentiates between "literary readers" and "unliterary readers".  He informs us that the "sure mark of an unliterary man" is he considers "'I read it already' as a conclusive argument against reading a work."  Literary people will read the same work countless times throughout their life.  

Another symptom between literary and unliterary readers is their discussion of the books they read.  Literary people think often to themselves about the books they read and discuss it with others.  Unliterary people "seldom think or talk of their reading." (pg. 3)

Lewis devotes a whole chapter to the unliterary.  Of course these kind of people come in degrees, but the lowest are those that won't read anything but the news.  They have no ear for rhythm and "vocalic melody".  They are unconscious of style.  Something must always be happening and happening at a rapid pace.  The unliterary reader reads only narrative because it is only there where he will find an "event".  He likes "strip narratives (today we would say graphic novels) and almost wordless films because in them nothing stands between him and the Event."

This reader is starting to sound a little like my son.  How have I failed?

Other interesting chapters describe myth and how they should be presented.  He tells us that most of them don't travel well in the abstract.  That there must a form to how the story unfolds or we could not stay interested.  He refers to Greek saga and epic.

One essay discusses fantasy and that the most fantastical tales are not Lord of the Rings or the Norse Edda or any other such story in which we clearly understand that the story would never take place in our own realities.  Lewis contends that the most insidious forms of fantasy are the stories that make the reader feel  as if they could.

Though they do not mistake their castle-building for reality, they want to feel that it might be.  The woman reader does not believe that all eyes follow her, as they follow the heroine of the book; but she wants to feel that, given more money, and therefore better dresses, jewels, cosmetics, (etc.) they might.  The man does not believe that he is rich and socially successful; but if only he won a sweepstakes, if only fortunes could be made without talent, he might become so. (pg. 55)

I believe that explains why certain deplorable novels (think mommy porn) are so popular.  According to this article, 40%of the highest selling independent self-publishing eBooks fall under the Romance genre.

And speaking of obscenity, Lewis has this to say:

We notice also that "truth to life" is held to have a claim on literature that overrides all other considerations.  Authors, retrained by our laws against obscenity-rather silly laws, it may be-from using half a dozen monosyllables, felt as if they were martyrs of science, like Galileo.  To the objection "this is obscene" or "This is depraved", or even to the more critically relevant objection "This is uninteresting", the reply "This occurs in real life" seems at times to be thought almost sufficient. (pg. 61)

And I could not agree with his final chapter more.  He bemoans the practice in most colleges (then and now) where students are not taught to read a book and derive their own personal experience from the novel or short story, but are told by the professor what to think concerning them.  Lewis contends that a criticism of a story does not teach you the truth of the story but rather the story tells one how to consider the criticism.

I see this as especially true today when it seems that certain novels, written by Victorian male writers I might add, are interpreted today as championing feminist causes.  Personally, I did not derive that from those stories.  Call me a prude (I know I am, I'm not ashamed of it) but I saw those heroines as unhappy selfish, adulterers, not empowered women, shrugging off the "shackles of matrimony and children."

Lewis suggests that "a ten or twenty years' abstinence both from  the reading and from the writing of evaluative criticism might do us all a great deal of good."

This is the first book in a series that C.S. Lewis wrote and I will be reviewing.  Has anyone else read these criticisms?  What is your opinion?

Further links:

Official C.S. Lewis website


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon.

This is such an interesting post. I have not read these particular essays from C.S. Lewis. As you describe them, his ideas concerning literary and non - literary people sound fascinating. Though I never thought of the subject as described, I think that there is truth to this.

Take care and have a great week!

R.T. said...

What an interesting posting! Let me share some wisdom through experience regarding book buying and other addictive pitfalls in life: make no promises to yourself about quitting, simply take one day at a time, and do not buy any books today. Forget about tomorrows. Focus on today. Smile!

Ruth @ with freedom and books said...

Oh, so very interesting. I know I need to read more C.S. Lewis. (I'm slowly getting around to it.) I'll have to put this on my TBR. (I love books about reading books.)

Intriguing suggestion about Victorian male-authored novels. Hmmm...I love your honesty, too.

BTW, your bookstore experience was very entertaining. I can relate; though I have yet to go on a book fast. However, I have been at the library in the used book sale section, eyeing a book and asking myself, "Are you SERIOUSLY going to be able to read this in the next ten years? If no, then don't even think about it." And I ultimately have to stop thinking about it and walk out empty handed. : (

P.S. Don't feel bad. My son, whom I read to every day from the time he was six months until he was five, and took him to the library once a week for ten years, and made him read classics, is now 20 and doesn't read AT ALL. I feel like an utter failure! But I still have four others. There is hope, yet.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian! Lewis has the most insight to any writer I've read. He opens up the mind to consider things that I've not previously thought about.

I hope you will get to read some of his essays.

Have a wonderful week as well. I'm sure you're enjoying cooler weather up north than down here.

Sharon Wilfong said...

R.T. I really appreciate your encouraging words. I will try to take your advice. A friend of mine quit smoking that way so maybe it will work for me as well. I hope you are enjoying the Gulf Coast. I will be soon visiting my parents on the Florida Gulf Coast and looking forward to it. Take care!

Sharon Wilfong said...

H Ruth! I hope you will get to read Lewis' essays they are well worth it.

I did go out on a limb expressing my own views. I try not to be inflammatory but I am so opinionated. It's gotten me into trouble on some other blogs.

I have calculated that if I don't buy a single book until I've read all the books I currently own and I read at the pace I'm going now, I will be able to buy another book in four years. (Insert sad face here and it's never going to happen-the not buying books for four years I mean).

I will say that my son loves non fiction, especially apologetics like Ravi Zacharias, Norman Geisler and John Piper but I don't see him reading fiction anymore. At least I read to him all his childhood. Surely that accomplished something.

Cleo said...

I must say, that I really appreciate your frankness, Sharon! We all are shaped by our experiences and surroundings in different ways which affect our characters and views. Your ideas and convictions are part of who you are, and I think you should be able to express them. It doesn't mean that everyone has to agree with everything you think; but I think by sharing your ideas, for me at least, you challenge me to expand my views and I really appreciate it!

Cleo said...

Heavens, I have so many Lewis books that I forgot about this one. I think I might have a first edition of it. :-) In any case, thanks for the link back to my blog! I'm now off to see if I can find my edition of this one.

Ruth @ with freedom and books said...

Oh, me too. I sometimes type out my entire comments and then delete them b/c I know I really don't want to deal with the conflict. But sometimes I press publish anyway.

But I glad you said something about the Victorian authors b/c I feel like I have had the same feelings about that, but I never really explored my thoughts. I suppressed them. See?

Anyway, four years is better than my ten years. : ) But, yeah, there's no way I could not buy a book in four years. There are too many good deals out there.

And it's great that your son is reading those authors. He's feeding his soul. I wish my son would just do that.

Sharon Wilfong said...

HI Cleopatra! I agree that we should all be able to espress our views like ladies and gentlemen and many do. For instance Brian Joseph who regularly comments on my blog is very respectful when expressing his views even though he is an atheist.

Ironically it was on a Christian blog where a couple of guys really ripped into me because I don't believe in blaming Bush for EVERTHING going on in the world today.

And I agree. If we talk in a way that is respectful, we're more persuasive. Instead of putting walls up, people may consider our point of view.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Ruth! If I know I'm going to say something controversial, I will usually pray before posting them.

As for the Victorian authors. When I first started blogging, I wanted to meet other readers so we could discuss our common interests. Then I realized that there are many type of readers.

I'm not interested in fantasy, occult, or erotica so those book blogs were out.

I realized that quite a few of the bloggers who review classic literature were college students who, while arrogantly mocking their literature professors, then proceeded to parrot everything they said in class.

Apparently in a lot of Universities one is only allowed to interpret Tolstoy, Flaubert, etc from a modernist, feminist viewpoint. It's disheartening. These professors should be teaching students how to think instead, they're teaching them what to think.

As for book buying. Well, I was naughty yesterday. So much for self- control...

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Cleopatra! Wow! A first edition. I'm jealous. I'm just glad they're still printing these little gems of his essays.

Cleo said...

Hi, Sharon. I thought you might enjoy this blog post that popped up today:

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Cleopatra. I visited Brendan's site. Very good. Of course, I invited him to read my review. Hee, hee. Thanks for the head's up! I hope your days of softball scoring are over. Hope Canada won!

Joseph said...

Sounds fascinating. I'll have to check this one out.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Joseph! I think you'll enjoy it very much.

Cleo said...

I had a Western Championship to head scorekeep (my first time), but now I am finished for the summer and will have some down-time to read. I can't wait!

Sharon Wilfong said...

To me reading can sometimes be like a part time job.

R.T. said...

Postscript: I look forward to reading the Lewis book; your fine review/assessment is persuasive, and I almost always enjoy reading books about reading books. BTW, tell me about your favorite(s) by Lewis. I need to expand my reading list, and I invite your suggestions.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi R.T. I have read practically all of C.S. Lewis' books. I couldn't list them all here but you have inspired me to make a list of all the Lewis books I recommend. I have just finished (and will soon be reviewing) another book of essays by Lewis. It is called: On Stories and other essays on Literature. It is very interesting. In it, he comments on different authors he likes. I was surprised to discover that fantasy and science fiction are his favorite genres, but not those genres as we know them today but as they were back in Lewis' day. Also I wanted to send you a link I think you'll enjoy. It's a movie review of Wiseblood directed by John Huston. I thought it was well written.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi R.T. For some reason I can't access you blog so here is the link for the movie.

Silvia said...

I just finished reading this book,


No, I am not as smart as C.S. Lewis, but I do feel in good company.

You highlighted things from the book I didn't in my review... it's such a rich and full of ideas short book, this Experiment... I was nodding when he wrote his critique on literary criticism. YES. Poetic reading has to be reclaimed!

Sharon Wilfong said...

HI Silvia! Thanks so much for visiting my blog. I must now look up your review. I am interested to see what you got out of this book.

And poetic reading does need to be reclaimed. Thanks for your comments.