Archives For An Experiment in Criticism

C S Lewis 5Last week we looked at C. S. Lewis’ thoughts on what makes a good reader and what makes a good book. Today I want to close off that series by examining Lewis’ thoughts on fiction.

I don’t believe it’s too much to say that Lewis found fiction indispensible to his spiritual life. Think of how seriously (in the proper sense of the word) he took his Narnia series. For Lewis, fiction was an important part of enjoying and exploring the world in which God placed us.

I’m going to let Lewis do the talking here:

“What then is the good of—what is even the defence for—occupying our hearts with stories of what never happened and entering vicariously into feelings which we should try to avoid having in our own person? Or of fixing our inner eye earnestly on things that can never exist…? …The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by natures sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself…We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own.”[1]

The bookstore offers an unbelievable opportunity: Here are thousands of perspectives on this world. Here are a host of experiences, carefully shaped and transmitted for a variety of reasons. Crack the cover and you can enter another world, you can see with another’s eyes, you can revisit your past or lean into your future. Why wouldn’t we be readers?

“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 those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented…

“Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality…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.”[2]

All of the arts give us this opportunity. A chance to see the world as we’ve never seen it before—a promise of transfiguration. Cornelius Plantinga explains that “the educated Christian has more to be Christian with.” So it is with the literary Christian.

This world of unfathomable diversity and beauty lies all around us. Some of it can be experienced outside our front doors. Other parts lie just beyond the horizon. Some of it is experienced through conversation. Still other parts of our world can be explored only by turning pages. But it’s all there, like a gift waiting to be unwrapped and enjoyed.

C. S. Lewis knew well the joys of reading. And I am beyond thankful for the books he left us to read, including the advice he gave us for reading well.

[1] C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961) 137.

[2] Ibid., 140-141.

C S Lewis 4We all want to read good books and avoid bad ones. But how do we know the difference? C. S. Lewis helps us here.

In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis proposes that what makes a book good or bad is the type of reading it invites. He begins by stating that he wants to define good literature as “that which permits, invites, or even compels good reading” and bad literature as “that which does the same for bad reading.”[1] He is forced to conclude, however, that adding the word “compels” is only wishful thinking. Ultimately, “what damns a book is not the existence of bad readings but the absence of good ones.”[2]

In other words, a good book is one that draws the reader in so that she reads it as a true reader. Lewis explains that there are some books we read and wonder with excitement, “Will the hero escape?” But there are other books we read (or perhaps even the same books, read with an extra level of depth), where we feel deeply, “I shall never escape this. This will never escape me. These images have struck roots far below the surface of my mind.”[3]

It’s not that a good book pulls every reader into this type of reading. Remember that there are different types of readers in the world. Lewis insists that if even one person reads the book this way then we cannot dismiss it as a bad book. A bad book is a book that makes a good reading impossible.

And we have to keep in mind that this can be any type of book. Christians can become suspicious of the imagination, thinking that we have to be serious. We have to move beyond childish fantasies and grow up by thinking only of the real world. But Lewis won’t have any of that. While some things are “childish” in a bad sense, there are many traits in children that we ought to pursue:

“The process of growing up is to be valued for what we gain, not for what we lose. Not to acquire a taste for the realistic is childish in the bad sense; to have lost the taste for marvels and adventures is no more a matter for congratulation than losing our teeth, our hair, our palate, and finally, our hopes.”[4]

For C. S. Lewis, literature is a means of exploring and enjoying this world and the human experience. A good reader will open himself up to the books he reads—he will enter into them—and allow himself to be changed in all of the right ways. A good reader won’t assume that some types of books (Lewis also gives a defense of comedy) are worthless, but instead he will give any genre of literature a fair chance.

Some of my favorite sections from Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism come from his discussion of reading fiction, and his thoughts here warrant some extra attention. But for that, you’ll have to wait until Monday.


[1] C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961) 104.

[2] Ibid., 113.

[3] Ibid., 48-49.

[4] Ibid., 71-72.

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.

C S Lewis 2Yesterday we looked at two of Lewis’ categories of poor readers: the unliterary (a broad category of those who merely use books to get at ideas) and the status seeker (who reads so he can talk about—or boast about, really—what he’s read). But Lewis’ list gets more interesting. And more convicting.

The Devotee of Culture

The devotee of culture is someone who wants to become more “cultured.” This person, Lewis says, may be very sincere. He’s not looking to follow the latest trends. According to Lewis,

“he is more likely to stick too exclusively to the ‘established authors’ of all periods and nations, ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’. He makes few experiments and has few favourites. Yet this worthy man may be, in the sense I am concerned with, no true lover of literature at all. He may be as far from that as a man who exercises with dumb-bells every morning may be from being a lover of games.”[1]

Lewis’ illustration of playing a sport verses exercising is fascinating. A basketball player and a gym rat are both in great shape, but they are different people. Of course, some play basketball for the sake of fitness, and some lift weights for the sake of improving their basketball performance. But that’s Lewis’ point. There’s one type of person who uses the sport for his own ends (fitness), and there’s another type of person who uses fitness for a greater enjoyment of the sport.

Excersice or SportSo it is with reading. If you approach a book with the sole intention of becoming more cultured, you’re not reading the book as it’s meant to be read. You’re forcing it into the service of a purpose it was not intended to serve. The devotee of culture never gives his attention to the book as a book; his attention is only on himself.

Let me preempt some likely objections. Lewis is not saying that books do not help us to grow as human beings. Nor would it be wrong to appreciate and enjoy the personal betterment that results from reading good books. In fact, as I’ll show in the next post, Lewis believes that the best books do things to us.

Lewis’ concern is for the way we read books. The person who reads a book purely because he believes it will be “good for him” to do so is not the best reader in Lewis’ opinion. It’s one thing to muscle down your broccoli because even though you’re not enjoying yourself, you know it will make you stronger. The minerals in the broccoli will do their work whether you are a broccoli lover or purely a healthy eater.

But books are different. Reading The Brothers Karamazov with an eye for only those elements that will make you a more cultured human being is not reading The Brothers Karamazov well. Reading a book well means being drawn into the book. It means letting go of your ideas of what you’d like the book to do to you or what you’d like to do with the book and allowing the book to do what it does.

Eating broccoli will nourish your body regardless of your approach. Get it down the old hatch and it’ll do its thing. But skimming The Lord of the Rings for moral lessons or sermon illustrations actually short-circuits the reading process. Read the book well—be drawn into its world, withhold judgment till the end, give it time to saturate your thoughts—and it will yield the lessons and illustrations. But for those lessons to take shape and those illustrations to be seen for what they are, you have to first take the step of reading the book well. You have to first lay aside your agenda for the book and let the book tell you its story. You must first enjoy the book. Only then will the book do its thing.

Is this sounding a bit vague? Don’t worry. Lewis has much more to say about reading well. This one concept of opening yourself up to the book will be the subject of the next post.

[1] C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961) 8-9.

C S LewisI have learned that whenever C. S. Lewis weighs in on a subject, I’d better pay attention. He’s not always right, of course, but he is always wise and thought provoking. This is true of everything that Lewis wrote on anything. But when it comes to Lewis writing about reading—an activity he devoted his entire life to—you’d better believe he has some profound things to say.

In this series of posts, I’m going to explore some of the things that Lewis says about reading well in his book An Experiment in Criticism. If you’re at all interested in Literature or even art in general, you should really just pick up the book. In any case, here are some of the highlights.


Good & Bad Readers

C. S. Lewis begins by distinguishing between good readers and bad readers. The difference, Lewis says, is less about which books they read and more about how and why they read those books.


The Unliterary

A poor reader—whom Lewis terms “the unliterary man”—doesn’t read books. He uses them:

“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.”[1]

It’s not even a matter of retaining what has been read. If this person’s eyes have passed over the words on the page, it is enough. Lewis describes a person standing in a library for 30 minutes, flipping through a book, trying to decide whether or not she has already read it. But once she decides she’s read the book, she discards it and looks for a different book to read:

“It was for them dead, like a burnt-out match, an old railway ticket, or yesterday’s paper; they had already used it.”[2]

What Lewis is describing is a person who reads books with no appreciation for what the book is, how it was written, how it functions, how it might speak to him and transform him. In our cinematic culture, this person would never waste time on a book if it’s been adapted for film.

Maybe that doesn’t sound like you. After all, if you’re reading this blog, you’re not entirely averse to reading. But even if you wouldn’t class yourself as “unliterary,” you’re not necessarily off the hook. Lewis adds a couple of other poor readers to the list.


The Status Seeker

The status seeker reads for reputation. She follows all of the trends of literary fashion, reading only those things deemed at the moment to be in good taste. And she reads them in order to say she’s read them, to be able to discuss them with the right people. This person will read books, but Lewis would not call her a good reader.

I’ll go ahead and admit that this one’s convicting. Anyone else?

But don’t worry. It actually gets worse. Lewis adds another category of poor reader to the list: the devotee of culture. This one will takes a little longer to unpack, and I’ve already said enough for one post, so we’ll look at this misguided approach to reading tomorrow. But let me just say that this category hits the closest to home for me.

[1] C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961) 2.

[2] Ibid., 2.