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How To Read Well According to C.S. Lewis

“The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender.  Look.  Listen.  Receive.  Get yourself out of the way.  (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out).”

–-C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

How Should We Then Read?

In 1961, British author and university professor C.S. Lewis published a short scholarly work, entitled An Experiment in Criticism. In it, he answers a simple but significant question: how should we read? Instead of offering a literary analysis, Lewis writes of how we prepare ourselves (and our students) to pick up a book.  Through his experiment, Lewis asks us to join him in reshaping the way we encounter literature.

1. By Laying Aside Our Skepticism

Lewis writes, “We can find a book bad only by reading it as if it might, after all, be very good. We must empty our minds and lay ourselves open. There is no work in which holes can’t be picked; no work that can succeed without a preliminary act of good will on the part of the reader.”  The experiment proposes that the only way we, as readers, may fully appreciate literature is by laying aside our skepticism.

If we don’t come to a book armed with the act of surrender, we come armed with our own doubts and apprehensions.  With this view, we’ll remain bound in our own world, despite the book’s work to broaden our perspective.  As Lewis explains, “We are so busy doing things with the work that we give it too little chance to work on us.  Thus increasingly we meet only ourselves.”  It’s only when we submit to the book can we determine whether it’s worthy of reading.

2. By Being Receptive

One of the best ways we surrender to the literature before us is by yielding to the tone, atmosphere, and attitude of the work.  As Lewis explains, “… [T]he true reader reads every work wholeheartedly, making himself as receptive as he can.  But for that very reason he cannot possibly read every work solemnly or gravely.  For he will read ‘in the same spirit that the author writ.'”  By devoting ourselves to the style of the work, we are set free to enter its particular character and genre.  As serious readers (readers who are dedicated to our material), we don’t read all things seriously but allow ourselves to experience the work as it was meant to be experienced–as comedy or tragedy, drama or essay.  Without fully surrendering to the style before us, we’ll be unprepared to understand and appreciate any book.

3. By Reading With Our Ears

Lewis writes, “Every piece of literature is a sequence of words; and sounds (or their graphic equivalent) are words precisely because they carry the mind beyond themselves.”  The true reader doesn’t merely read with his eyes, but must likewise also read with his ears. He must absorb the rhythm, thrust, and cadence of the words and phrases that form every literary work. To fully surrender ourselves to a particular book, we must learn to read both visually and auditorily.

4. By Looking Beyond Events

For Lewis, the unliterary reader “never intends to give the words more than the bare minimum of attention necessary for extracting the Event.”  In other words, the unliterary reader focuses his attention nearly exclusively upon the ideas and proceedings found in the story itself, ignoring completely the aspects of a book that flow beyond the mere plot.  As literary readers, we understand that the only way to surrender to the book before us is to search beyond the events themselves. We must scour the work for beauty, truth, and goodness in the resonance and intonation of individual words and phrases.

5. By Surrendering Ourselves

As Lewis comes to the end of An Experiment in Criticism, he writes, “This, so far as I can see, is the specific value or good of literature considered as Logos; it admits us to experiences other than our own…The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison.  My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others.”

The act of immersing ourselves in a book is one of the few actions in this world that allows us to perceive the world as it is viewed by another.  Yet the key to this experience is, once again, in the process of surrender.  To read without surrender blinds us. It limits our view to the one perceived by our own eyes. It’s only when we enter the world of another that our own world – and the world of our students – is broadened.

In the closing words of Lewis,

In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself…Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”