Last week I was pleased to post that I had finished reading through C.S. Lewis’ works chronologically–from his earliest childhood letters and those precocious Boxen stories to his last letters, essays, poems, and books. On Tuesday I gave some of the rationale for doing something crazy like this. Reading Lewis from beginning to end gave me a way to read everything that Lewis ever wrote in a systematic way that helped me catch a sense of his inner workings–his personality, his weaknesses, his hopes and his dreams.
Over the last three years I have had a number of people ask me about this project of reading C.S. Lewis chronologically. Far from a definitive guide, I wanted to post some very practical ways that you too can do this reading project–whether you take a year (the professional approach), or 3 years (for students like me), or the better part of a decade (the bedside reading approach).
I won’t in this blog talk about the hard-to-find materials or the unpublished work, but will focus on the kinds of materials that the average reader can find. I may geekify this post a little bit in the future.
First, what are you in for if you are if you take on this crazy C.S. Lewis project? Here are some of the numbers:
- 99% of his published works are in 60 volumes
- Joel Heck lists 463 individual things to read (i.e., books, essays, poems, public lectures, reviews, etc.)
- 215+ essays, sermons, and reviews in 13-20 books
- 3 edited volumes dedicated to literary friends (Charles Williams & George MacDonald)
- 2 volumes of published incomplete work (Boxen, Narrative Poems, The Dark Tower and Other Stories)
- 3 volumes of 3,274 letters exceeding 3,500 pages
- 11 books of complete fiction (3 SF, 7 Narnian tales, 1 myth retold)
- 2 conversion stories (Pilgrim’s Regress and Surprised by Joy)
- 3 books of apologetics (Problem of Pain, Mere Christianity, Miracles)
- 2 books of theological fiction (Screwtape Letters, Great Divorce)
- 4 other books that defy description (Letters to Malcolm, 4 Loves, Reflections on the Psalms, Abolition of Man)
- 12 volumes of literary criticism and history
- over 200 poems in 4 volumes
- 21,000+ pages
- 5,000,000-6,000,000 words
It’s quite a total, considering we have few of his lectures published, almost none of the incomplete manuscripts or drafts, and most of his letters are lost (or unfound).
Like me, you probably didn’t know where to start when you were ready to start. Fortunately, we live in an age of incredibly rich resources for at-home reading. I will list a few supplementary resources below, but here is the bare minimum:
- A Publication List
- The Collected Letters
- The Collected Poems
- The Books Themselves
1. A Publication List
You can find bibliographies of C.S. Lewis’ work most anywhere on the internet, and the Bulletin of the New York C.S. Lewis Society runs a comprehensive bibliography for subscribers. There were two primary resources I used for organizing my C.S. Lewis reading.
First, I used Joel Heck‘s “Chronologically Lewis” projects. Dr. Heck has initiated a mammoth undertaken to record everything that can be known about C.S. Lewis’ daily life. He has spent years gleaning letters, diaries, and other obscure literature to put together a daily accounting that exceeds 1,000 pages. And he gives it all away for free at http://www.joelheck.com.
Part of Joel’s work is to create a “Complete Works of C. S. Lewis in Chronological Order.” The version I have–now tattered and torn and filled with pencil scratches, stains, dates, omissions and additions–is much older than the new one you can find here. The new list has 463 books, essays, poems, public lectures, and reviews.
Second, I also used Arend Smilde’s plain and extremely useful http://www.Lewisiana.nl. Working in Dutch and English, Arend has a great eye for detail. He has also has written a chronological bibliography with the hot title, “C. S. Lewis’s essays, short stories and other short prose writings as published in collected editions, 1939–2013.” Arend organizes the material in 3 ways: 1) listing the different essay and story collections and giving their table of contents; 2) giving a chronology of essays in a short form (i.e., easy to make a checklist); and 3) alphabetizing Lewis’ essays and short pieces.
My interest was reading Lewis while he was writing something, not just in the order of publication dates. Much of Miracles, for example, was done in 1943-44, but not published until 1947. Then it was abridged in the late 1950s and revised in 1960. It meant (for me) coming at it a couple of times from different angles. On the other side, his Oxford History of 16th c. prose and poetry was written over a 15 year period, finished in 1952, then published in 1954. I read it little by little over a period of 3 months while I was doing late 1940s and early 1950s reading. There was not much more precision available to me.
Combining your letter reading (see below), with the lists from Joel Heck (baseline) and Arend Smilde (supplement), gives you a pretty good guide on what to read and when.
2. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis (3 vols)
I was fortunate to begin my journey after Walter Hooper had completed the monumental task of collecting as many of Lewis’ letters as possible in 3 pretty thick volumes. I used these letters to pace my 3 years of reading. Sometimes I read a few letters a day; on occasion I sat and read a few months worth of correspondence on a single evening. Sometimes I had to slow down on the letters to finish up a book, but the timing was pretty good.
Volume 3 has some supplemental letters, so you need to have it on hand pretty early in the process. There is a Volume 4 in the works for letters left behind, but I wouldn’t expect it until 2020ish. Vol 3 is, unfortunately, very difficult to find in print. The cheapest copy on Amazon today is $506.66, and you can read here about my adventure in finding a copy. Vol 3 is available in eBook for pretty cheap, and each of the volumes go on sale for $4 USD. If you have a Vol 3 around you aren’t using, get it to a student who would use it.
I have done a statistical analysis of the letters (see here), and have blogged a few dozen of them over the last 5 years (e.g., here). This is one of my favourite parts of reading Lewis. Even in the midst of responding to fan letters and ordering stamps and doing college business, there are flashes of C.S. Lewis’ pithy brilliance and poignant spiritual direction.
There are other letter collections (see the listing here), but these 3 cover most of what you need.
Here I arrived too soon. This was the weakest part of my reading and something I will address next time. I have the Walter Hooper edited poetry volumes (Collected Poems and Narrative Poems), which has about 70% of Lewis’ poems–including his earliest books Spirits in Bondage and Dymer–and some unfinished work. Scouring letters, biographies, and some articles by Don W. King and others, I added another 3 dozen poems or so.
Now Don King has done the work for us in his The Collected Poems of C. S. Lewis A Critical Edition. Published recently, this edition of Lewis’ poetry represents years (decades?) of work. It is the closest thing we have to a complete poetry text of C.S. Lewis. While the cost of the volume is high ($75 USD), serious readers are grateful for the collection. And, of course, it is full of important critical analysis of the poetry itself from a leading critic.
If you can’t get this volume yourself, send me a note and I’ll help fill in some of the missing pieces. But go to your local library and tell them this is the “definitive work.” Who knows? That sort of crazy talk has worked for me before.
4. The Books Themselves
This is the trick, isn’t it? You can find C.S. Lewis’ books at local libraries, in church offices, in garage sale bins and library discard sales, on friends’ bookshelves, and–if worse comes to worse–relatively inexpensively at Abebooks, Amazon, or the bookseller down the road. Narnia and Mere Christianity are pretty easy to bump into; the rest falls into the special providence of book finding that I’m sure exists, but I can’t predict.
I have made a list on Goodreads (see here), and you have the Joel Heck list already. Let me add some book tips that don’t fit very elegantly together, but can be helpful in your journey:
- Essays and Short Pieces
- Lesley Walmsley edited a volume called C.S.Lewis Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces (2000) which has most of the articles not in Hooper’s new Image and Imagination; it was not available in the U.S. and so is a bit hard to find
- Transpositions = Weight of Glory (sermons)
- The Seeing Eye = Christian Reflections (essays)
- There are two versions of God in the Dock: 1) a longer one that is the same as Undeceptions; and 2) a short abridged God in the Dock of about 101 pages–ignore #2 and any other abridgements
- Some essay books aren’t needed if you have the others: The Grand Miracle, Of Other Worlds, First and Second Things, Compelling Reason, and Timeless at Heart
- The only new essay in Christian Reunion is the “Christian Reunion” essay–is it available anywhere else? I have it in audio form, and in the Walmsley edition
- Check Arend’s index for more details
- I have encouraged Don King’s Collected Poems, which have all the poems (with minor omissions)
- Walter Hooper edited Narrative Poems has 4 unfinished longer poems, plus Dymer; add The Collected Poems for about 70% of Lewis’ corpus
- The Collected Poems has a misprinted cover that simply says Poems–the same title as an earlier edited volume by Hooper (I know!)
- Literary Criticism & History
- Except the Oxford History Sixteenth Century book, A Preface to Paradise Lost and The Personal Heresy, the other literary criticism and history books are reprinted in a new Canto series for $12-$20 USD ($20-$25 CDN), including Allegory of Love, The Discarded Image, An Experiment in Criticism, Studies in Words, Selected Literary Essays, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, Image and Imagination, and Spenser’s Images of Life (lectures put together by Alistair Fowley)
- Rehabilitations is impossible to find but is replaced by 3 books: Selected Literary Essays, Image and Imagination, and Christian Reflections
- Lewis’ commentary on Charles Williams’ strange and beautiful–and incomplete–Arthuriad is printed together with Williams’ poems and 5 chapters of a Williams Arthurian history in a “Williams & Lewis” one volume edition by Eerdmans in 1974
- Christian Books
- Mere Christianity = Broadcast Talks (= Case for Christianity) + Beyond Personality + Christian Behaviour
- Miracles was released in 1947; there is a hard-to-get abridgment in about 1958, but the 2nd edition of 1960 is what you will most easily find; in it ch. 3 has been rewritten (see Arend Smilde’s write up here)
- A number of the Christian books are reprinted in an attractive Harvest Book series, including All My Road Before Me (the 1920s diaries), The World’s Last Night, Of Other Worlds, Present Concerns, Letters to Malcolm, Surprised by Joy, The Dark Tower and Other Stories, The Four Loves, and Poems (the one not needed)
- I have ignored totally the anthologies of Lewis’ work and quotations–I’m not against them; they simply overlap
- Watch out for an abridgment of That Hideous Strength called The Tortured Planet
- Voyage to Venus = Perelandra
- The Dark Tower has the incomplete Ransom tale (which I think authentically Lewis‘, but some doubt it) and some other stories published or unfinished; see also Charlie Starr’s Light
- See William O’Flaherty’s great little guest blog for more: “Till We Have Confusing Book Titles“
- Digital Editions
- I have audio editions of all the popular essays except “Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger” and “Is Progress Possible?”
- I have audio for all the Christian books–including The Abolition of Man–and all the fiction
- Narnia comes in an unabridged version and a dramatized version (by Focus on the Family)–is there also a BBC version dramatized somewhere?
- The Screwtape Letters has been read by Ralph Cosham (who reads 90% of Lewis’ work), as well as John Cleese from Monty Python; there is also a Focus on the Family dramatized version featuring Andy Serkis (the famous voice of Gollum in the Middle Earth films)
- For those more visually oriented, the Youtube account “C.S. Lewis Doodle” has done some awesome animations in blackboard form of a dozen or so of Lewis’ chapters and essays
- I don’t have audio for any of the literary criticism books
- PDFs or Ebooks
- I believe that I have a digital copy of every book except the Oxford History Sixteenth Century volume and The Personal Heresy–has anyone found these for sale?
- All the published letters and Narnia are widely available in many forms (PDF, Kindle, Epub, etc.)
- The Don King volume is not in Ebook or Audio form yet (is it?)
- Lewis’ work is out of copyright in many countries (including Canada and Austrialia), so there are some digital copies online
- Other resources that come in handy
- Ways to supplement your reading
- Previously unpublished material that is now available here and there
Now, it is your turn. Tell me in the comments about how you have approached reading C.S. Lewis, and whether this is a project you would enjoy. Feel free to critique (to make this resource page better) and share.