Last week I had the great thrill to post that I had finished reading through C.S. Lewis’ works chronologically–from his earliest childhood letters and stories to his last letters, essays, and books. On Thursday I will post some practical ways that you too can do this reading project–whether you take a year, or 3 years (like me), or the better part of a decade.
By my very rough count, most of Lewis’ published work is made up of 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. There are, by my count, 3,274 letters in print, plus another dozen or so unpublished letters that have circulated.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 days, it is more than 3,500 pages of reading.
It is a lot of reading. To put it all in chronological order adds a layer of complexity to the project. Besides the sheer fun of it, why have I chosen to read C.S. Lewis chronologically? Here are some of my key reasons.
Bound by Honour
There is an important role for the blogger and social commentator these days. I write that way, working as a fan and critic, and thinking not just about books but about how stories work in our world. This is a faith, fiction, and fantasy blog, centering around the Inklings, their influences, and their emulators.
I have tried, though, to keep my work as a student and scholar of the Inklings just a few inches from my work as a blogger. Most won’t have noticed, but I have been very careful about making grand pronunciations about C.S. Lewis that aren’t confirmed by other scholars. I have made some hints here, a suggestion or two there. And I have made some mistakes. For the most part, though, I have worked to show new angles, not completely new interpretations. The papers I have published have been on teaching and the publication of manuscripts. It is only recently that I have published my own original work, like recent chapters on spiritual theology and Lewis’ critical approaches.
The reason I held back is because, as a scholar of C.S. Lewis, I am bound by honour to have read broadly and deeply in the man’s work. No matter how I approached reading Lewis, I needed to read just about everything I could get my hands on.
First Steps on a Well-Worn Road
Knowing that I was going to read everything that Lewis published, I had to begin somewhere. I had read Narnia, the Ransom Cycle, and Mere Christianity growing up. Many of us have, though I think the Ransom books are hidden SciFi/Dystopian early generation treasures. As I discuss here, it was The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia” that drew me into Lewis studies–really a development from my teaching experience.
I found the mythmaking possibilities endless, but when I read Letters to an American Lady I knew I had to create a systematic approach to reading–and one that included letters, not just the published books and essays. I don’t know how other readers and scholars do it, but you could approach the material thematically (cultural criticism, spiritual direction, apologetics, writing themes, etc.). You could also come at Lewis and read him genre by genre, going little by little through his letters, poems, literary histories, book reviews, apologetics works, lectures, literary criticism pieces, anthologies and prefaces, SF books, short stories, children’s literature, and myth retellings. You could also read the books as they fall into your lap–a kind of serendipity approach guided by library catalogues, yard sales, bookstore specials, and friends foolish enough to loan out their books to you, a voracious reader.
I thought it made sense–and I still think it is the best way–to read chronologically. I knew enough about Lewis to know how to do this, and had an excellent library nearby. It meant beginning with juvenilia–my least favourite of his works–but it is a clear, systematic way to approach Lewis’ life and work.
The Man Behind the Mirror
We are reading because we enjoy the books: the stories, the words, the characters, the arguments, the particularly Lewisian way of looking at the world. You love Narnia, she loves classic Science Fiction, he is moved by the depth of the literary histories, they go to Lewis as an apologist and social critic, and I love the buried treasure in the reams of letters left behind. We read Lewis because we like his work.
But I was also reading because I wanted to get a sense of the man behind the letters and the images. Letter by letter, book by book, piece by piece I was building a picture in my mind of who C.S. Lewis was. I don’t ever intend to write a biography–at least not in the traditional sense. Before I could confidently speak to “Lewis’ Approaches to Spiritual Theology”–my PhD project in short form–I had to have a very clear idea of who Lewis was. Moving past the works left behind to the writer’s vocation is a dangerous project, but it is one I chose to undertake.
Reading chronologically allowed me to form my impression of the Narnian behind Narnia, the apologist behind the apologies, the man behind the myths.
Would the Real C.S. Lewis Please Step Forward?
As I was trying to form an image of who C.S. Lewis was, I wanted to avoid two crucial errors.
First, I didn’t want to fall into any one C.S. Lewis myth. Lewis has been taken up, for good and ill, by so many others. I have seen him identified by evangelicals, progressive Christians, Orthodox believers, Catholics sure he was close to returning to the fold, fantasy writers, animal rights activists, theistic evolutionists and young earth creationists, Tolkienists, Jungian psychologists, atheists with a grudge, atheists still hoping for an autograph, and the 22 people in the world certain that Lewis was right (or wrong) about Paradise Lost and know why.
I could not protect myself from all views of history and letters, but as much as I could I wanted to form my sense of Lewis for myself, without help from biographers, critics, fans, and historians. So I read C.S. Lewis work first, and then turned to what others said about him.
Second, I did not want to fall into the trap of imagining Lewis as a static character. It is a bare fact that the man who toyed with sadomasochism as a priggish undergrad wrote a layman’s commentary on the Psalms, lectured on Marxism, helped instigate a cultural return to Spenser, preached a return to Christ on the BBC, and wrote a series of children’s stories that created a framework of possibility for future fantasy writers. To freeze any one of these images into “The Real C.S. Lewis” is to reduce a complex figure into a cartoon.
I read chronologically so that as I grew to understand the heart of the man, I also saw how he changed and grew throughout the years. Finally, once I had a good image of Lewis in my mind (at about 1945), I started reading biographies and secondary literature. Even then, I was selective, weighting my reading heavily to Lewis’ own work and words.
The Dip of the Pen
Lewis once said–I can’t remember where right now–that he liked using a dip pen to write because it slowed him down. The pen paced his work as he paused every 5-10 words to sketch out the ideas in his mind. This is part of the reason why Lewis was able to create brief, tight work largely in a single draft.
Reading chronologically gave me the same sort of biographical experience. Going month by month, year by year, allowed me to explore areas that were uncertain to me. As they became relevant, I also did research 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, 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–three great minds it was a privilege to creep.
Reading slowly enough to supplement that reading with other works has been a rich experience.
That, then, is why I chose to do a chronological reading of C.S. Lewis. I think it was worth it, and am excited to try this project on other writers of history.