Friday, August 21, 2009

An Experiment in Criticism by C. S. Lewis

A favorite topic of mine is the difference between popular books and classic literature. Obviously, I was prepared to love An Experiment in Criticism, especially since it was written in Lewis' unique and witty style.

I wouldn't be honest if I didn't say that certain passages were out of my depth of understanding, but the parts I understood were so rich in meaning that I know I'll be returning to this book again and again. How could I resist re-reading Lewis' rock-hard arguments against those who disdain fantasy for its "untruthfullness"? (p. 67) Or his explanation for why an unliterary reader prefers bad writing? (p. 32)

As the unmusical listener wants only the Tune, so the unliterary reader wants only the Event. The one ignores all the sounds the orchestra is actually making; the other ignores nearly all that the words before him are doing; he wants to know what happened next... He is deaf to the aural side of what he reads because rhythm and melody do not help him discover who married (rescued, robbed, raped, or murdered) whom. He likes [comic] strip narratives and almost wordless films because in them nothing stands between him and the Event. And he likes speed because a very swift story is all events. (p. 30)

I was intrigued by the idea that we should come to a book in an attitude of surrender, i.e., without preconceived notions. Ignore the critcis, says Lewis, until after you've read the book. Don't let them tell you a book is bad. In fact, you should expect it to be good and if it isn't, then you've given the author an undeserved compliment. "We must attend even to discover that something is not worth attention," wrote Lewis (p. 132) After you read an original work, then, by all means, read the critics, he says. But you'll have the advantage of being able to "dialogue" with them rather than listen to a one-sided lecture.

Diehard lit fans and C.S. Lewis lovers will heartily enjoy this book.


Carrie said...

Oh! Oh! I haven't read this book. But now I HAVE to!!! Thanks for pointing out it! (Skipping off to Amazon . . .)

Janet said...

I love that idea that even if you dislike a book, you're giving the author a compliment.

I'm familiar with this title and love Lewis, but I haven't read this yet. Thanks for this review.