Virgin Books

cs lewis preface to paradise lost 2000sI am reading C.S. Lewis’ A Preface to Paradise Lost for the first time. This is one of Lewis’ early works (1942), and comes out of his lecturing in English Literature. I was struck immediately on the first page by a powerful metaphor for genre–what books do, what kind of book they are. Then Lewis moves on to talk about epic poetry, how strange it seems to us now in our context. In his discussion, he comes up with the idea of  “virgin books.” Check it out.

[The need for this book] is specially urgent in the present age because the kind of poem Milton meant to write is unfamiliar to many readers. He is writing epic poetry which is a species of narrative poetry, and neither the species nor the genus is very well under­ stood at present. The misunderstanding of … narra­tive poetry … I have learned from looking into used copies of our great narrative poems. In them you find often enough a num­ber of not very remarkable lines underscored with pencil in the first two pages, and all the rest of the book virgin.
It is easy to see what has happened. The unfortunate reader has set out expecting ‘good lines’-little ebullient patches of delight­ such as he is accustomed to find in lyrics, and has thought he was finding them in things that took his fancy for accidental reasons during the first five minutes ; after that, finding that the poem cannot really be read in this way, he has given it up.

DSC_0126The size of Lewis’ own library is legendary, and some researchers spend their times going through his own marginal notes. He didn’t leave many virgin books. So I thought I would test his theory.

I picked up my copy of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, an ex libris copy from St. Stephen’s University. I no longer remember where I got this copy, but I had originally bought it because it has many of Milton’s other works, including Comus, and has editorial notes by Northrup Frye.

And, indeed, other readers of this particular copy have left trails behind them. There are 3 readers that I know of, though the “date due” slip on the back is empty. I can tell there are 3 readers not just because of the ink colours they used, but by the handwriting. Here are the first few pages:

DSC_0128DSC_0129DSC_0130DSC_0131DSC_0132DSC_0133The notes are telling. The Black Ink Reader, as evidenced by this last picture, is a reader who thinks Satan is the “epic hero”–something that Lewis argues against. This reader highlighted a number of great lines, including, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” which you can also get on a t-shirt. Within a few pages, the Black Ink Reader drops off. The other 11 books of Paradise Lost are left virgin.

Milton NotesThen there is the Green Highlighter Reader. I detest when people use highlighters, but to each his own. During my days as a student I just saw too many psychology textbooks filled with bright yellow or orange. It has sort of turned me away from the practice altogether.

The Green Highlighter Reader leaves a single mark with a unique hand. This reader has piggy-backed on the Blue Ink Reader (more anon), highlighting what really is a key passage in Paradise Lost:

Had ris’n or heav’d his head, but that the will
And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
Left him at large to his own dark designs,
That with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought
Evil to others, and enrag’d might see
How all his malice serv’d but to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace, and mercy shewn
On Man by him seduc’d, but on himself
Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance pour’d.
(Book 1, lines 211-220).

Paradise Lost by John MiltonThe Green Highlighter Reader is clearly highly critical and astute. He or she has then written in the margin: “FR WLL Stan,” short, probably, for “Farewell Satan.” This is a reader who clearly falls prey to the virgin book scenario that Lewis describes.

But there is a third hand, the Blue Ink Reader. This reader underlines some of the more interesting phrases, as Lewis warned might happen. This reader focusses on Books I, II, IV, VIII-X. And although there are as many marks in the first two books as all the rest, the Blue Ink Reader consistently marks out interesting passages throughout–and even into Comus.

My suspicion, then, is that one of the hands that held this copy of Paradise Lost made it through the entire epic. Perhaps it was because the Blue Ink Reader knew that it was an epic and treasured it as such. Or perhaps he or she had to read it for school; there was someone peaking over a shoulder. I simply can’t know.

cs lewis preface to paradise lost 1942And I cannot test the theory much further. Most of the epics on my shelf are used, but all of them are virgin books–all pages are left without marks, so sacred they are unread or a least unmarked. I have found 2/3 readers of Milton fit Lewis’ categorization. What do you think? Do readers pick up older genres they don’t understand, mark up a few pages, and then give up?

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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31 Responses to Virgin Books

  1. This is brilliant! What a great experiment. I suspect that most students are assigned only bits from books I, IV, and IX — that’s what I did the one time I taught Paradise Lost in a high school setting. And, yes, I’m sure that many readers start out with good intentions and then drop off. I’ve done that with some masterpieces myself!
    One little thought: Couldn’t “FR WLL Stan” be short for “Free Will Satan”?


  2. If what I’ve read about modern readers is right, most people pick up books of any genre or time period and either never start them or just get a little ways in before abandoning them.

    I don’t think it takes very long before a lot of books, perhaps only several decades old, become hard for present time people to read. We suffer from a shocking lack of historical perspective and context. And as Lewis might say, a heavy dose of chronological snobbery.

    All that being said, I’ve been a life long reader, and even I find it hard to get into some works from past the mid-part of last century. I have a dickens of a time with Dickens. Chesterton is so brilliant it takes me awhile to wrap my head around what he says. Even though I now love Jane Austen, the first time I read each of her books it took me until about halfway in to warm up to them.


    • I would wonder that older generations were made of stronger stuff.I have had false starts to some of the great books (thought not Dickens). My struggle with a lot of the 1st half of the 20th c. writers is that I struggle with long paragraphs and point of view–so Chesterton, but also Virginia Woolf and Charles Williams.


      • revgeorge says:

        I would probably agree too that older generations were made of stronger stuff.

        I’ve never read Woolf but I found Williams to be almost incomprehensible. Of course, it’s been several decades since I’ve read any of his works. I might have to give him another go.

        (Would you be able to remove my duplicate comment? Something got botched up when I tried commenting with WordPress. Thanks!)


        • I’ll try to unduplicate you!
          Williams may age well in the sense that more mature readers may get him better. I talked to a 23 year old last week who loved “Descent into Hell.” I struggled with it.


  3. jubilare says:

    I think Lewis is quite right, but I have no empirical evidence to offer. Was your book marked while still a library book? Because I seriously dislike seeing that. Marking one’s own book, however, is not only fine, but often good policy. 🙂


  4. I am one of those who detest the defacing of books…even the bible. I loved however that you noticed the three individual readers and their take on it through their notes and highlights. It made me remember that I always found it interesting when I took out books from the library who took the same books out before me and what their thoughts were. The only difference is that I prefer near pristine copies in my personal library…maybe I am missing something by not buying second hand ???


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  18. keebslac1234 says:

    I got laughed at, pitied, even, for reading James Joyce’s Ulysses cover to cover, ditto for Moby Dick. I also watch movies (the second and following times) in three-minute chunks. Call me weird, but I had to stop and think about the efforts that Joyce and Melville went through to write those epics. Neither of them are Milton, but, wow, what monumental works they are. I figure they are on par with the photography of Ansel Adams. The richness is in the process of taking them in.
    An aside: I’m so grateful that the books on my devices can be marked up. It’s so easy to do. It’s also so easy to remove and rework. Digital has its advantages.


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