Those who know me best and who spend a great deal (or really any amount) of time talking to me about literature or philosophy will agree that the words “CS Lewis says” will inevitably depart from my lips. Most of my thought process in the past two years has been shaped from the Oxford professor’s wise words. I have known about Lewis since my high school years (mostly negative, anti-evolution drivel, negating all else that was argued), though I did not decide to start reading him until I had a good deal of time off of school in 2010. The writer John Eldredge, who is not necessarily recommended nor read by this blog, first pointed me in the direction, and I have certainly ran with the suggestion. When I first stumbled upon him, I was thrilled by someone whom I still consider to be a terrific writer — one who can take a very common aspect of something and approach it from an angle I never even perceived was there, a rare gift indeed. Though I was quickly spellbound by Lewis’ merely “good writing” at first, as I continued my own studies in literature, I began looking up to him more and more as a very intelligent colleague whom I will tirelessly strive to mimic. My time reading Lewis (for I often read authors in periods) was in some sense culminated last summer, and I have recently revived my mentor by reading Surprised by Joy, his autobiography on how he came to Christ.
I was highly interested in re-reading this book primarily because the first time I read it, I was very ignorant of the many literary references being made. I first read the book a little over a year ago, and was captivated as usual by Lewis’ writing and intrigued by his testimony. However, this time reading it, I was looking far more into his habits as a reader, scholar, and writer. I am currently becoming more curious on Lewis’ literary crticism: how he read, what he read, what he considered good literature etc. (For more information on this, I recommend An Experiment in Criticism by Lewis.) The book is, of course, not about these things, but they are so much apart of Lewis that the are strung throughout the work. What a man is reading greatly influences what he is thinking, or in the very least, how he thinks. And Lewis read a great deal. Much like Jane Eyre, from the time he was a child, he was reading books such as Gulliver’s Travels something I did not get to until I was twenty-two years old.
This point will bring up the one thing I really want to stress in this book — what I got away from it. My reading history growing up in comparison to Lewis can be compared using a bag of rice. If we were to take out a single grain and put it on the table, that would represent what I have read up to this current point in my life. Now the rest of the bag would represent Lewis’ wide range of reading. This at least is how one feels when they are met with than many references mentioned as well as the fact that he read many books I have yet to get to, all the while in their own language. The man, in short, was extremely well-read, and whether you agree with his views or not, there can be no argument, he was extremely intelligent.
When concerning heroes, every person has one and is thereby influenced by them. If a musician loves Mozart and wants to compose music, he will either throw in the towel and exclaim that he can never meet those standards or he can strive as best he can to be as close to Mozart’s talent and expertise as he can, all the while retaining his own individuality of course. In the same vein, I feel the “pressure” (for lack of a better word) to catch Lewis. This is why I read so much. In men like Lewis and GK Chesterton, and JRR Tolkien (the philologist that is), I see individuals who are leagues ahead of me, yet men who I want to emulate as best I can in the profession. All the striving and reading will inevitably leave me grasping for air as it is vain to think I will ever reach these men, but much like our fictional composer, there is no reason not to try.
Nevertheless, as much as I respect Lewis’ opinions, I did find that I was a bit disappointed in my second time through the book. This is mainly in the discovery that we have different tastes. Lewis, I find, has strong opinions about essentially every book, and he does not shy away from criticizing or simply saying one is bad. I view it differently (due to lack of right to criticize) in that I have an imaginary circle in which I actually do enjoy nearly everything I read (or I decide not to read it). Everything is enjoyable, but within that sphere some are far less enjoyable than others. In contrast, Lewis seemed to have many books and poetry he did not enjoy at all such as Don Juan (Byron’s version I believe). He mentions a friend, Arthur, who introduced him to what he described as the “homely” books such as Austen, Brontë, Dickens, Thackeray etc. — authors that I would enjoy more than the fantasy or mythological stories he enjoyed. Yet he still acknowledged that the friendship opened his eyes to those types of books. This naturally applies to all sorts of fields. Though the tastes may not be exact, one’s interests can and will be enhanced by those he associates with.
This was not all unsatisfying to me, however. As much as I wanted him to go on a ten page spiel about how the Pickwickians’ trip to Dingley Dell made him pull a twentieth-century LOL, in which the action is actually carried out; as much as I longed to hear how Joe Gargery in Great Expectations reminded him of the “fairy” inside each person — even in those that are “common,” — I had to remember I was not reading my own story (nor Chesterton’s) but Lewis’. Individuality is a beautiful thing, and we can certainly learn from those who share the same interests as we do, even if those interests are at odds as Lewis comments on Owen Barfield (a fellow Inkling) who was just that to him. What I would give to sit down and discuss the very limited amount of literature we could discuss due to my inadequacies! For now, I must gird up the loins of my mind and read as much as I can in the time that has been given me, though I toil as one who beats the air.
Soli Deo Gloria!