Archives For Literature

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.

The (secular) college I attended for my undergrad offered classes on the Bible as literature. I (along with most in my circle of Christian friends) avoided these like the plague. How could I study the Bible as literature? It is literally God’s word. It comes with his power and authority. It is absolute truth. A secular course that has me reading the Bible as a work of literature is bound to misrepresent the Bible and destroy my faith. Right?

We all have those things in our lives that we wish we could go back and do differently. This is one of mine. I’m not certain that these classes would have been life changing, and I’m fairly confident that most of the religious studies professors had a low view of Scripture. But I’m no longer afraid of reading the Bible as literature.

The simple fact is, the Bible is literature. And because the Bible is God’s spoken word, this means that God intentionally wrote the Bible to be literature.

I’m pretty sure that a lot of us would like the Bible a whole lot better if it gave us lists. Lists of doctrines, lists of moral conduct, lists of “believe this, don’t believe that.”

As a matter of fact, for most of my Christian life I have thought of the Bible like this. The New Testament epistles are fantastic because once you get past all the interpersonal letter type stuff, Paul will slip into some serious doctrinal discussions. The Psalms are pretty good because they often speak directly to God. The rest of the Old Testament and the narrative sections of the New Testament, however, are pretty rough. You have to read through pages of story and distill them until you get to the doctrinal or moral point. Wouldn’t it have been easier if God had simply given us a list?

None of us would express it like this, of course. But come on, admit it, you’ve thought this deep down. If you were writing the Bible, you wouldn’t have included Leviticus. Or Philemon. Or most of the narratives in Judges.

But there is something to be said for the fact that God gave us the Bible as-is. Leland Ryken puts it in perspective:

“The Bible is overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) a work of literature. The one thing that the Bible is not is what Christians so often picture it as being—a theological outline with proof texts attached. The characteristic way of expressing religious truth in the Bible is through story, poem, vision, and letter. By comparison, expository essays, theological discourses and sermons are a relative rarity.” (The Liberated Imagination, 41)

The existence of the Bible proves irrefutably that God has an interest in poetry. We know for certain that God is a storyteller. God isn’t content to only write poems with powerful content, he also sometimes takes the time to ensure that they are crafted as beautiful acrostics (this is the case with Psalm 119, for example). He likes people and relationships and isn’t embarrassed by the greetings, asides, and practicalities in the epistles.

The Bible is more than literature, but it is not less. And God did that on purpose. So the next time you find yourself reading the Bible and getting frustrated that you can’t find “the point,” relax and enjoy the Bible as God wrote it. Pay attention to the literary devices, the analogies, the rhetoric. Let these literary features have their intended rhetorical effect on you. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be surprised at all the ways in which the Bible begins to take on a new life.

(And by the way, if you really want to be focused on the literary features of the Bible, I highly recommend the ESV Literary Study Bible. I have been thoroughly enjoying mine.)