C. S. Lewis on Reading Well, Part 3

Mark Beuving —  July 31, 2013 — 4 Comments
This entry is part 3 of 5 in the seriesC. S. Lewis on Reading Well

C S Lewis 3What makes a good reader? With C. S. Lewis’ help, we have already exposed “the unliterary,” “the status seeker,” and “the devotee of culture” as poor readers. But what makes a good reader?

Lewis explains that a good reader has a much different experience with a book than a poor reader does. The “unliterary” toss a book once it’s been read—it’s been used up. For a “literary man,” his first reading of a book is often:

“an experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison. Their whole consciousness is changed. They have become what they were not before.”[1]

Many readers will know immediately what Lewis is talking about there. The best stories get into us so deeply that we know we won’t walk away from the book unchanged.

And here is where the distinction between the poor reader and the true reader comes more clear. Lewis explains that so many people get so caught up in their desire to do this or that with the book that they give the book no chance to do anything to them. If we force a book to suit our own needs, we are not letting the book speak. When we do this, Lewis says, we read a book by someone else but ultimately “we meet only ourselves.”

“In reading imaginative work, I suggest, we should be much less concerned with altering our own opinions—though this of course is sometimes their effect—than with entering fully into the opinions, and therefore also the attitudes, feelings and total experience, of other men.“[2]

Step 1 is not critiquing the opinions of others. Step 1 is entering their opinions.

Many people are too agenda-driven to be good readers. Lewis insists that we must read as a means of experiencing:

“The question ‘What is the good of reading what anyone writes?’ is very like the question ‘What is the good of listening to what anyone says?’ Unless you contain in yourself sources that can supply all the information, entertainment, advice, rebuke and merriment you want, the answer is obvious.”[3]

And this where Lewis gives another helpful caution regarding our standards in reading books. You might be tempted to say, “Ok, I’ll do this with good books. But I’m not going to give any time to bad books.” Lewis responds by saying that we can’t possibly know that a book is bad if we haven’t given it a fair chance.

“We can never know that a piece of writing is bad unless we have begun by trying to read it as if it was very good and ended by discovering that we were paying the author an undeserved compliment.”[4]

No one has time to read everything, of course. But Lewis’ words keep our judgmental spirit in check. There are many books that I disliked—until I actually read them. There are some books I have read and hated that I suspect might prove to be good books were I to read them again with a gracious spirit. I haven’t always given the books I’ve read a fair chance.

Serious ReaderI want to include one other important point that Lewis makes about being a good reader. He clarifies that there is a difference between calling someone a “good reader” and calling her a “serious reader.” Serious can mean “devoted,” but it can also mean “grave” and “humorless.” Lewis proposes we use the term “true readers.”

“Now the true reader reads every work seriously in the sense that he reads it whole-heartedly, makes himself as receptive as he can. But for that very reason he cannot possibly read every work solemnly or gravely. For he will read ‘in the same spirit that the author writ’. What is meant lightly he will take lightly; what is meant gravely, gravely.”[5]

For Lewis, it’s possible to be too serious as a person to be serious as a reader.

Thus far we’ve been talking only about types of readers. But the point of Lewis’ book (An Experiment in Criticism) is actually the means by which we can judge a book to be good. So tomorrow we will let C. S. Lewis answer the question, What makes a book good?


[1] C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961) 3.

[2] Ibid., 85.

[3] Ibid., 132.

[4] Ibid., 32.

[5] Ibid., 11.

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Mark Beuving

Mark Beuving

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Mark Beuving currently serves as Associate Pastor at Creekside Church in Rocklin, CA. Prior to going back into pastoral ministry, Mark spent ten years on staff at Eternity Bible College as a Campus Pastor, Dean of Students, and then Associate Professor. Mark now teaches online adjunct for Eternity. He is passionate about building up the body of Christ, training future leaders for the Church, and writing. Though he is interested in many areas of theology and philosophy, Mark is most fascinated with practical theology and exploring the many ways in which the Bible can speak to and transform our world. He is the author of "Resonate: Enjoying God's Gift of Music" and the co-author with Francis Chan of "Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples." Mark lives in Rocklin with his wife and two daughters.
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  • ywilber

    I often run across folks who say they won’t read (or don’t want to read) a book that is too difficult for them. Mortimer Adler addressed this by comparing a difficult book to a chin-up bar. A difficult book makes you reach over your head, and in the process you lift yourself up to a higher position (of knowledge). Lewis’ “unliterate” readers don’t even want to reach up. They stay on the ground content with their flabbiness.

  • Peyton

    Enjoyed this series Mark. Thanks for sharing them. If interested, I’ll send you a copy of my book “Church Zero” for review. It’s published by David C. Cook. I know Preston, which is why I’ve signed up to follow these posts. Been impressed with the quality of what you guys are writing so far. Take care amigo, and thanks for sharing these insights. I visited the Kilns back in 2009. Even got a picture of my infant girl sitting on his grave…kinda creepy pic, but maybe something will rub off on my daughter and she’ll be a literary giant one day!