I suggest 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. — CS Lewis, An Experiment in Crticism
The hypocrisy of the modern is one in which he will willingly allow himself to enter into the mindset of another person so long as that mindset allows him to better love himself. Thus, the modern is more apt to vicariously enjoy a movie or TV show because there he meets himself. He will not read an old book because he is nowhere to be found in it. All his preaching about accepting the views of others and tolerance is rejected in his actions which suggest he really only cares about himself. This is no more true than in popular literary theories which allow for readers to bring themselves into a text they have no right to enter. If, for instance, I read King Lear objectively, I do not meet myself. But the modern rejects this, warps the text itself and makes Lear about something which it was never about all in an effort to “relate to the text”: If the work has no bearing on me the reader, the work has no bearing period. This is a sentiment CS Lewis argued against in his book An Experiment in Criticism.
Lewis’ essentially forgotten book argues that literary criticism should primarily be focused on what types of books make good readers. He spends a better part of the book explaining the difference between a good and bad reader. Good reading is reading in which the reader essentially leaves himself and enters the world of the text — that world which the author created and intended. The good reader understands that his world is best affected not by “discovering” himself in the work but by letting the world of the text work on him in a way that changes his own world.
The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through the eyes of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog.
Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself… Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.
The Christian believes that God ordained reading as his primary means to know him, and this little book is a call to the importance of reading fiction. If reading literary works is merely a practice in which our theories can be played out, we have done the novel an injustice. If reading is only a practice in which I can better see myself, I am a narcissist. We do not come to books for truths about lives as most books are very different than the world we inhabit. We do not come to books as an aid to culture. For it is better to come to books as they would have us so we can understand the culture in which they were written rather than pulling out cultural topics that were never there in the first place. Lastly, and most importantly, we do not come to books as we do mirrors. We have Facebook for that. But literature is the great means by which we can better see through our brother’s eyes and love him. For it is easier to “love your neighbor as yourself” when you have entered into, even accepted for a time, his perspective of the world.