Lewis: Good Readers and Bad

“Already in our schooldays some of us were making our first responses to good literature. Others, and these the majority, were reading, at school, The Captain, and, at home, short-lived novels from the circulating library. But it was apparent that the majority did not ‘like’ their fare in the way we ‘liked’ ours. It is apparent still. The differences leap to the eye.

In the first place, the majority never read anything twice. 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… Those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work ten, twenty, or thirty times during the course of their life.

Secondly, the majority, though they are sometimes frequent readers, do not set much store by reading. They turn to it as a last resource. They abandon it with alacrity as soon as any alternative pastime turns up. It is kept for railway journeys, illnesses, odd moments of enforced solitude… But literary people are always looking for leisure and silence in which to read and do so with their whole attention. When they are denied such attentive and undisturbed reading even for a few days they feel impoverished.

Thirdly, the first reading of some literary work is often, to the literary, 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. But there is no sign of anything like this among the other sort of readers. When they have finished the story or the novel, nothing much, or nothing at all, seems to have happened to them.

Finally, and as a natural result of their different behavior in reading, what they have read is constantly and prominently in the mind of the few, but not to that of the many. The former mouth over their favorite lines and stanzas in solitude. Scenes and characters from books provide them with a sort of iconography by which they interpret or sum up their own experience. They talk to one another about books, often and at length. The latter seldom think or talk of their reading…”

– C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism 

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2 thoughts on “Lewis: Good Readers and Bad

  1. Good stuff! In keeping track of what I read over the last year and a half, I’ve been surprised to note how many books I’m reading for the 2nd or 3rd time…
    Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” is definitely one for the multiple-read list. I don’t believe I’ve heard of “An Experiment in Criticism” before.

    -Ben

    1. Agreed about Mere Christianity. In fact, I think all of Lewis’ works are worth reading again and again. 🙂 I’ve read the Narnia books more times than I can count, and Screwtape Letters and The Abolition of Man are both due for another read this year. Such a brilliant writer and apologist.

      I think my favorite part of this quote is when he describes the first reading of certain great works as experiences “so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison.” That is exactly how I felt when I first encountered books like McCarthy’s The Road or Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

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