It is not every day that I resort to an animated gif to describe my thought processes. But last night, as my 11 year old son, Nicolas, was perfecting his shi ho hai at karate, I finished reading everything that C.S. Lewis (or his literary executors) ever published, in the order it was written.
“Yatta” is a Japanese word I learned when I lived in Nagano. It means “I did it!”, and Hiro from Heroes is the best image I’ve ever seen of how it feels to complete the project. You can see the Japanese word for it on the right in the little dialogue bubble in the 9Wonders comic book.
This little accomplishment represents just over 3 years of going through Lewis’ letters, poems, stories, reviews, essays, sermons, and books one by one, from beginning to end. I begin with his precocious childhood letters to Papy and ended with his last letter (to a young Narnian fan) and the final essay he wrote, “We Have No Right to Happiness.” Last night, as I was watching 17 miniature samarai go through their katas, Lewis had a heart attack in bed, spilling his tea as he fell to the floor. His brother, Warren, found him and was with him when he breathed his last.
I will write a proper post about the project anon. I think it is a valuable project that you can do as well.
By my very rough count it is about 60 books worth of reading, or about 21,000 pages, 5,000,000-6,000,000 words. Considering this corpus is made up of some of the most important Christian literature in the 20th century, foundational work in literary history and criticism, classic SF and dystopian books, and a series of fairy tales that changed children’s literature forever–not to mention thousands of letters that shaped the spiritual lives of friends and strangers–it is not a bad legacy of the pen.
Lewis’ work ranges in difficulty from the wondrous ease of Narnia to the complex literary criticism and metrical analyses of Selected Literary Essays. In length, many of Lewis’ books are breezy novella-length pieces like The Great Divorce. His brevity was a real gift, but The Allegory of Love and the snappily titled English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama are weighty books. His longest books are actually the letters collected by Walter Hooper into three volumes (with a fourth in the works). There are by my count 3,274 letters in print, plus another dozen or so unpublished letters that have circulated. Though this probably isn’t even 1/3 of the letters Lewis sent in his his days, it is more than 3,500 pages of reading.
Alongside this reading I also did extra digging into apologetics, epistolary fiction, the 16th century and the reign of the Tudors, WWI and WWII, the Oxbridge educational systems, literary theory, and etymology. Reading Lewis caused me to discover or rediscover Jane Austen, Jonathan Swift, Milton, Dante, Virgil, Homer, Samuel Richardson, H.G. Wells, G.K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, T.S. Eliot, F. Anstey, Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, John Christopher, E.R. Eddison, George Orwell, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, Dorothy L. Sayers, Virginia Woolf, as well as Arthurian traditions and the metaphysical poets. I also read much of Warren Lewis’ diary, and letters by Joy Davidman, Dorothy Sayers, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Finally, once I had a good image of Lewis in my mind (at about 1945), a started reading biographies and secondary literature.
On top of the published work, I tried to get at the unpublished and incomplete materials. Scholars are steadily putting this in to print, often in journals, but I also had to get to libraries in the U.K. and the U.S. where manuscripts are housed. I wasn’t always able to do this at exactly the right time in the chronology, but I did my best. Fortunately, but the 2010s will be know in Lewis scholarship as the decade where Lewis’ hidden work came to light. Whatever I could find, I read it. What I could share, I have done so.
And now I am done.
Well, sort of. There’s a lot more to go. I won’t start again at day 1 right away. I have to read as much of George MacDonald as I can this year, and I am teaching a new class in May. I am also in a program of reading for my PhD. But I suspect I will re-start the “Reading C.S. Lewis Chronologically” project not too far into the future.
I’m actually a little bit sad. Still, I celebrated a bit last night. And I did some configuring on Goodreads last night so that others could give this project a go. I picked 60 of Lewis’ books that cover 99% of what is in print. I would encourage you to check it out!