"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Monday, July 28, 2008

An Experiment in Blogging

Reading Lewis’s Experiment in Criticism has made me realize that I have not, hitherto, given much thought to the purpose of this blog. It is, quite simply, for fun. That is, I like reading and occasionally writing about authors that have been largely forgotten by a television entertained culture. I can only pretend to be an authority, however, and cannot even deceive myself when it comes to evaluating anything critically. To plagiarize the words of C.S.Lewis (from one of his theological books and not, of course, referring to literature): “I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself.”

My aim has never been to exhaustively analyze a book but only to discriminatingly comment on whatever I particularly like or (more seldom) dislike, or for that matter, anything that remotely interests me. In An Experiment in Criticism Lewis perceptively remarks that an obligation to review a book may hinder the reviewer’s ability to soak it in and enjoy it for its own sake. I don’t want this to happen to me. Since I started this blog there have already been books I have had nothing worth saying about even after racking my mind. Rather than stress over something to say I see now it would be better to forget writing about, and simply enjoy reading that book. Granted, this determination could translate into fewer posts in the future but hopefully of a better quality. (The current dearth of posts is due to the somewhat extraordinary occurrence of a weekend camp out, a six-day backpack trip, and another weekend out of town).

I am not recommending a book just because I post about it. Some of the books I have written about have very little in their favor and numerous flaws both artistically and morally. I am “concerned far more with describing books than with judging them” (Experiment 122). Chretien De Troyes, whom I reviewed a few months ago, is a case in point. Maybe the original French verse is better but my prose translation is awful: Repetitious, descriptive to the point of boredom, totally unlifelike, and no reason or motive for many of the actions taken. Morally it was just as bad, as anyone acquainted with the adulterous tale of Lancelot knows. Yet it was interesting in its odd little way and I enjoyed parts of it. Would I recommend it? No way. (And besides, who in their right mind would take such a recommendation!)

One reason I write is because I have not yet found another blog entirely devoted to mining for the same literary and philosophical ore that I am in search of. There are scholarly blogs and “summer reading” reviews and religious blogs and history blogs but non which occasionally touch on the deeper issues raised by famous literature without sounding like they are written by a Ph.D. (i.e.: boring and incomprehensible). I would much rather hear someone else’s thoughts on the kinds of books I like but as C.S.Lewis is reputed to have said to Tolkien: “Tollers, there is too little of what we really like in stories [or blogs]. I am afraid we shall have to write some ourselves” (On Stories xvii).

And hearing other thoughts raises another point: feel free to comment. There is nothing like dialogue to stimulate thinking. Agree, disagree, tell me what you think about a book, ask a question, or whatever. Just try to keep it on topic and keep it decent.

Lewis, C.S. An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge U.K. Cambridge University Press, eleventh Canto edition. 2006
Lewis, C.S. On Stories and Other Essays on Literature. Harcourt, inc. 1982

Thursday, July 10, 2008

An Experiment in Criticism

The title may not sound very interesting, but C. S. Lewis’s Experiment in Criticism is more engaging than the title suggests. The experiment is to alter the traditional practice of pronouncing a book “good” or “bad” and instead examine if the reader is a “good” or “bad” reader. Basically Lewis contends that nearly all books have some value, it is the two ways different people respond to books that is most telling. He labels people in two categories: the literary and the unliterary.

By unliterary Lewis does not mean those who do not read books at all, although he says:

the most unliterary reader of all sticks to ‘the news.’ He reads daily with unwearied relish, how, in some place he has never seen, under circumstances which never quite become clear, someone he doesn’t know has married, rescued, robbed, rapped, or murdered someone else he doesn’t know (28).
Lewis clarifies by saying that only reading newspapers and so on “makes no essential difference between him and the class next above—those who read the lowest kinds of fiction” (29). He gives five points that identify the unliterary. They, among other things, are “unconscious of style,” “Demand swift moving narrative,” prefer description and dialogue cut to a minimum, and
they read exclusively by eye. The most horrible cacophonies and the most perfect specimens of rhythm and vocalic melody are to them exactly equal. It is by this that we discover some highly educated people to be unliterary (29).
For me, this last characteristic raises an almost unthought of element in good reading and writing. To the slight wounding of my pride I realize I am not as cognizant as I imagined.

But Lewis is quick to preface his work by saying that knowledge alone is not enough to make someone literary. For some professors and reviewers “reading often becomes mere work” (7). Appreciation is killed. The literary, however, “will read the same work 10, 20, or 30 times during the course of their life” (2). They are always looking for a quiet corner to read in. Afterward “what they have read is constantly and prominently present to [their] mind” (3).

Lewis was writing against a very elitist literary establishment that had “debunked” many, if not most, of the great classics of the previous centuries. It seems that his purpose was to save books from being condemned at the ever changing whim of the elites by saying something like: look, here are literary or “good” readers (not part of the establishment) who still think that (for instance) Elizabethan poetry or science-fiction is good. Are we to ignore them and believe it all bad without even listening to the reasons why they think it has merit?

Lewis is not against objectively valuing literature; in fact, his whole goal is to find a solid foundation by which to judge books.

For the accepted valuation of literary works varies with every change of fashion, but the distinction between attentive and inattentive, obedient and willful, disinterested and egotistic, modes of reading is permanent (106).
In a nutshell, to find a good book, first find a good reader and watch to see which books he or she reads over and over again, all the while relishing each sentence and word. According to Lewis: “Whatever has been found good by those who really and truly read probably is good” (112).

It is good to keep in mind that books alone are useless. Any value they have exists only if someone reads them. Lewis asserts that,

whatever the value of literature may be, it is actual only when and where good readers read. Books on a shelf are only potential literature. Literary taste is only a potentiality when we are not reading (104).

Lewis, C.S. An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge U.K. Cambridge University Press, eleventh Canto edition. 2006