The Reading Life: The Joy of Seeing New Worlds through Others’ Eyes
© 2019 C.S. Lewis
One of the reasons I’ve grown so fond of Jack Lewis over the years is that he and I share some of the same chief pleasures; reading, writing, long walks, and warm evenings with friends and potable beverages. Lewis in his time wore many hats, but central to his life were the joys of reading — reading stories that enlarged the spirit, and reading arguments which forged, tempered, and sharpened the mind. The Reading Life collects Lewis’ writings about the joys and virtues of a life spent in books. Of all the posthumous themed collections of Lewis’ writings which I’ve read, it’s easily the most delightful.
Alan Jacobs comments in The Narnian that much of Lewis’ adult work was committed to re-enchanting the world, to countering the dismal sterility of modernity. Key to his conversion to Christianity from the hard materialism of his teens and early college years was a belief that Story was central to human life; for all his attempted embrace of modernity as a youth, Lewis was invariably tugged away from it, fascinated by the power and significance of Myth. In our time, so much is lost that we mis-use the word myth as a synonym for lie – but this only reveals our own ignorance. We are no less driven by myth today than we were yesterday; the only difference is that our myths are far less noble and interesting.
In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall elaborated on the centrality of Story to all levels of human life, from mere adaptation and survival – allowing us to empathize with others and rehearse skills – but be bound together in larger groups, knit together by narrative. Much of this was already understood by Lewis, who saw stories not only the path to moral formation – teaching us courage in the face of danger, for instance – but the path out of our own self-absorption. We can encounter older minds, formed in different cultures – ones that are flawed in their own way, but not in ours, and which can throw a light onto our own limitations and often offer a hand in inspiring us to virtues often ignored by our own time. Literature rescues us from not only cultural provincialism, but chronological snobbery; we can stand with our brothers and sisters from ages past, learning from them instead of looking down on them in smug condescension. That is one of the most extraordinary things about books; their ability to introduce us to Persons who, while no longer living, are certainly not dead. in sitting with a book and reading attentively, we can enter into a conversation with minds and personalities and find unexpected solidarity.
For readers, this is preaching to the choir — but it’s a wonderful sermon. Coming up later in A Week with Jack: The Narnian, a literary biography; The Problem of Pain, and possibly The Four Loves, which I need to re-read and review.
Of Other Worlds:Essays and Stories, C.S. Lewis. A posthumous (Walter Hooper) collection of Lewis’ writings on SF and fantasy. Very similar in theme. One I need to re-read and review, but I have to find it first…