An Essential Reading List from C.S. Lewis: An Experiment on An Experiment in Criticism

experiment in criticism cs lewisOn A Pilgrim in Narnia we have been playing with lists of the key books to read–what we might call a “canon.” We’ve thought about the key books of Western literature (here and here), thought about the problems of this discussion, and made some suggestions at developing our own Fantasy and SF canon. I thought today and next week we would turn to C.S. Lewis.

Lewis is one of the most widely read people I have ever encountered in history. He devoured books, which were his lifelong love and the foundation of his work as a scholar and writer. His own books are layered with hundreds of the great books of history hidden within the images, words, and stories. Even Narnia–especially Narnia, perhaps–is soaked through with echoes from mythology, children’s fiction, the poets, Arthurian tales, and the Bible. Not just these books, but their fictional worlds too. Even the world of Sherlock Holmes is connected with our early Narnian heroes.

So what books must we read in order to experience the rich layers within even an accessible author like C.S. Lewis? The list is massive. Every time I read an old book or pick up a Medieval or Romantic poet, I find something new in Lewis’ fiction. We are going to lose if we try to reproduce Lewis’ reading list. It is largely unknown to us, I suppose. But, more than that, he began reading the great works as a child, and read too often and too quickly for most of us to ever catch up.

What I did, instead, was to conduct an experiment on An Experiment in Criticism.

An Experiment in Criticism is a fun little book. Lewis tries to answer the question great critics struggle with all the time (and we are thinking about here): what makes a great book? Lewis turns the question on its head by asking, “What makes a good reader?” I won’t tell you the answer to his question just yet (stay tuned), but in answering he considers in the 150 short pages of An Experiment in Criticism a vast swath of literature.

So I asked this question: What works of history would I have to read to know all the obvious references in this short book on literary criticism?

Naturally, we would turn to the index and bibliography. There is none. And there are very few footnotes. This is a senior scholar (Chair at Cambridge) writing an essay for his colleagues and students at the end of his life. It is an important essay, predicting the arrival of Reader Response Criticism and Deconstructionism, and answering those movements at the same time. The American and English critics of the period all read it. Still, it is a very short essay.

So what I did was go through the book carefully and pull out every overt literary reference. I counted references to 86 individual books and poems. There were also a few dozen nods to poets, mythologies, religions, critics, literary and art movements, and narrative epochs.

That’s a lot of references for a few short pages.

In the end, I think this list of references makes for a great list of canonical authors. True, most of the critics reading Lewis’ Experiment in the 1960s won’t have read all these books and poems, but they will have read many of them and have a passing knowledge of the rest. It is light on the novelists, and he doesn’t deal much with poetry. It has more fantasy than another author might entertain, as you might imagine from one of the 20th century’s great fantasists. But I think it makes a great reading list.

So I share it with you. You can read An Experiment in Criticism any time you want, but here is the list you would need to get every reference Lewis made. I also included a list of authors Lewis mentions by name, expecting the reader to know their works. In an even more significant way, this is the list of Western canonical authors. Accidental and incomplete, it is a great way to dive in to a reading of our culture’s foundational books.

Then, as you write your own poems, blogs, syllabi, and books, you can create a canon for the next generation.

A Canon List from An Experiment in Criticism

  • Homer
    • Iliad (c. 8th BCE)
    • Odyssey (c. 8th BCE)
  • Unknown, Book of Jonah (8th-4th BCE)
  • Pindar
    • Olympian Odes (early 5th BCE)
    • Pythian Odes (early 5th BCE)
    • Fragments (early 5th BCE)
  • Aeschylus, The Eumenides (5th BCE)
  • Sophocles, Oedipus Rex (c. 429 BCE)
  • Aristotle, Poetics (335 BCE)
  • Virgil
    • The Georgics (29 BCE)
    • The Aeneid (29-19 BCE)
  • Lucian, Vera Historia (2nd)
  • Apuleius, Metamorphoses/The Golden Ass (late 2nd)
  • Unknown, Beowulf (8th-11th)
  • Unknown, The Song of Roland (11th-12th)
  • Laȝamon, Brut (c. 1190-1215)
  • Unknown, Huon of Bordeaux (c. 1216-1268)
  • Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda (early 13th)
  • Dante, Divine Comedy (1308-20)
  • Geoffrey Chaucer
    • The Canterbury Tales (late 14th)
    • Troilus and Criseyde (1380s)
  • Unknown, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late 14th)
  • Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur (1485)
  • Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso (c. 1516)
  • Arthur Brooke, The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (1562)
  • Sir Philip Sidney, Arcadia (late 16th)
  • Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene (1590s)
  • William Shakespeare
    • Romeo & Juliet (1591-5)
    • Twelfth Night (1601-2)
    • The Winter’s Tale (1611)
    • A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1590-7)
    • Henry V (c. 1599)
  • John Donne, “The Apparition” (early 17th)
  • Michael Drayton, “The Shepherds Sirena” (1627)
  • Thomas Browne, Urn Burial (1658)
  • Jean Racine
    • Andromaque (1667)
    • Phèdre (c. 1677)
  • John Milton
    • Paradise Lost (1667-74)
    • Samson Agonistes (1671)
  • Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock (1712-4)
  • Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726, 1735)
  • Voltaire
    • “Micromégas” (1752)
    • Candide (1759)
  • Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759)
  • William Beckford, Vathek, an Arabian Tale (1782)
  • James Boswell, Life of Johnson (1791)
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798)
  • William Wordsworth
    • “Michael” (1800)
    • The Excursion (1814)
  • Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice (1813)
  • Walter Scott, Guy Mannering (1815)
  • Benjamin Constant, Adolphe (1816)
  • John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819)
  • James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Witch of Atlas (1824)
  • Elias Lönnrot, The Kalevala (1835-49)
  • Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo (1844)
  • Charles Dickens
    • The Pickwick Papers (1836)
    • Great Expectations (1861)
  • William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair (1848)
  • Edward Fitzgerald, Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1859-89)
  • Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers (1857)
  • Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1869)
  • George Eliot, Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life (1871-2)
  • Samuel Butler, Erewhon (1872)
  • Lewis Carroll, “The Hunting of the Snark” (1874-6)
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880)
  • Robert Louis Stevenson
    • Treasure Island (1883)
    • Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)
  • Edwin Abbott, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884)
  • John Ruskin, Praeterita (1885)
  • Henry James, The Turn of the Screw (1898)
  • H.G. Wells
    • First Men in the Moon (1901)
    • “The Door in the Wall” (1911)
  • Beatrix Potter, Tales (1902-1930)
  • Joseph Conrad, Nostromo (1904)
  • E.R. Burroughs, Tarzan (1912-1965)
  • Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (1908)
  • Arnold Bennett, The Old Wives’ Tale (1908)
  • James Stephens, The Crock of Gold (1912)
  • D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers (1913)
  • Gertrude Stein, “Sacred Emily” (1913)
  • James Branch Cabell, Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice (1919)
  • Kafka, The Castle (1926)
  • Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan (1946)
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings (1954-5)

List of Authors Whose Work Stands as a Whole

I thought it would be interesting also to make a list of people that Lewis mentioned by name in this short book–i.e., people one simply knows. I left out those more obscure that had previously been mentioned in connection with their works.

  • Homer (c. 9th BCE)
  • Aristotle (384-322 BCE)
  • Virgil (70-19 BCE)
  • Lucretius (c. 99-55 BC)
  • Ovid (c. 43 BCE-18 CE)
  • St. Paul (c. 5-66 CE)
  • Horace (65-8 BCE)
  • Dante (c. 1265-1321)
  • Chaucer (c. 1343-1400)
  • Malory (c. 1415-1471)
  • Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585)
  • Montaigne (1533-1592)
  • Tasso (1544-1595)
  • Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)
  • Sir Phillip Sidney (1554-1586)
  • Donne (1572-1631)
  • Rabelais (c. 1483-1553)
  • Natalis Comes (1520-1582)
  • Marlowe (1564-1593)
  • Shakespeare (1564-1616)
  • Milton (1608-1674)
  • Dryden (1631-1700)
  • Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
  • Dr. Johnson (1709-1784)
  • Ossian (=James MacPherson) (1736-1796)
  • Wordsworth (1770-1850)
  • Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
  • Jane Austen (1775-1817)
  • Charles Lamb (1775-1834)
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
  • Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)
  • Balzac (1799-1850)
  • Tennyson (1809-1892)
  • Dickens (1812-1870)
  • Anthony Trollope (1815-1882)
  • John Ruskin (1819-1900)
  • Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)
  • R.M. Ballantyne (1825-1894)
  • George Meredith (1828-1909)
  • Jules Verne (1829-1905)
  • Walter Pater (1839-1894)
  • Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
  • Henry James (1843-1916)
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)
  • Brunetière (1849-1906)
  • Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)
  • A.C. Bradley? (1851-1935)
  • Rider Haggard (1856-1925)
  • Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)
  • William Morris (1859-1896)
  • A.E. Housman (1859-1936)
  • Bergson (1859-1941)
  • W.W. Jacobs (1863-1943)
  • Kipling (1865-1936)
  • Walter De La Mare (1873-1956)
  • Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)
  • G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
  • Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)
  • Edgar Wallace (1875-1932)
  • E.R. Burroughs (1875-1950)
  • D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930)
  • T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

Of course, any reader must also know Boswell’s Life of Johnson, critics such as Dr I. A. Richards, Macaulay, De Quincey, and Matthew Arnold, fictional critics like Gigadibs and Dryasdust, literary historians like W. P. Ker and Oliver Elton, the Puritans, the Georgians, the Muses, Norse mythology, art history, iconography of the Eastern Church, musicology, the French poets, the Pastoral writers, Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories,” Gibbon, some general tenets of Thomism, and the counter-examples (such as Martin Tupper, Amanda Ross, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, and Patience Strong).

Note: If you see errors or omissions, please let me know and I will do my best to fix them.

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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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62 Responses to An Essential Reading List from C.S. Lewis: An Experiment on An Experiment in Criticism

  1. Extollager says:

    Some thoughts–

    1.Many of the works he lists are ones that a person should have read by the time of graduation from college, especially if the person is an English major. Modern English curricula being what they are, a lot of that reading will have to be undertaken by the student on his or her own, in time snatched away from immersion in criticism and literary theory (i.e. politics). We must simply acknowledge the loss, that if we read some of these things at all, it will be as translations, not in the original languages–an incalculable loss.

    2.But An Experiment in Criticism is Lewis’s last testament as a lifelong reader. Lewis wouldn’t have expected that readers of his book would already have read all of these. He speaks from memory of innumerable hours of happy reading and his feeling is infectious. You’ll -want- to look into, say, Peake or Buchan (p. 48) or Pindar, if you haven’t done so yet.

    And a key point of this testament of a lifelong reader is the happiness that reading has provided. English departments are often constituted so as to damp down this happiness. Emphasizing criticism and literary theory, they encourage guilt-feelings (for white males) and resentment and irritable action for many students. An English faculty colleague of mine, aged about 27, regards the list of canonical authors that I give to students, to encourage lifelong reading, as exhibiting “white male patriarchy.” That is the feeling prompted by her experience as a student and grad student. If she enjoys reading canonical books with Lewis’s type of enjoyment, I am not sure I have seen it in several years. In short, though she may teach literature, in an important sense one cannot be sure that literature has ever happened for her. Perhaps it did when she was a child and an adolescent, and so she majored in English, and as a bright, obliging student trusting her teachers, assimilated criticism and theory. Books are things you do clever things with, for her, clever things of a familiar type–gender roles in Shakespeare etc., I suppose. But the happy, disinterested close and sympathetic reading Lewis recommends, and that gave him, even near the end of his life, such “youthful” love of reading–?

    3.I wouldn’t say that Lewis doesn’t deal much with poetry. He doesn’t deal much with modern non-narrative poetry.

    4.I have been following up Lewis’s references since the 1970s or so, and have found him a magnificent guide.

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    • Thanks for this great response. In reverse order:
      4. I agree, though with less experience to recommend it. I have been haunting his indices for a while and re-forming my own reading program.
      3. That is really an error I made. I meant “lyrical poetry” in this blog. Of Donne and Herbert and the other modern greats we don’t have all that we might list in a canon list. His literary history is almost all about poetry (Allegory of Love, OHEL, Preface to Paradise Lost, some of the essays).
      2. I love this: “Lewis’s last testament as a lifelong reader.” This is your first of two points in this section and readers should take note.
      On the second point: “English departments are often constituted so as to damp down this happiness.” I’m not sure this is as extensive as to make it the majority experience, but there is a thread of this in literary, historical, and religious studies. My own experiences have been positive, but I see what you are striking at.
      Granted the real experience of happiness-crushing, is it all because of the ideological movements of criticism? I’m not so sure.
      I think canon lists like this one undeniably exhibit “white male patriarchy.” I would add “upper class”–something feminist and queer critics don’t always acknowledge as they read Wolff, the contemporary poets, or the novelists.
      I, however, question the value judgment in calling something “heteronormative,” “patriarchal,” “white,” “urban,” “suburban,” or from the “university class.” I am a feminist critic and love the postcolonial conversation. I think these critical acknowledgements are powerful tools for both reading and social reformation. Books and canon lists are each ways of exhibiting power. To miss that is to miss the testimony of so many.
      Knowing this, then, we have two general reactions. 1. Burn the books that exhibit the “-isms” we are concerned about (metaphorical, of course). 2. Do something else. I opt for #2.
      What I do is this:
      a. I continually critique my own reading list with other things from outside of my perspective.
      b. I disengage from shame narratives.
      c. I look for ways that books can undercut the grand social narratives.
      d. I try to live as a person of social transformation.
      e. I teach my students and readers to do these things.
      Reading your response I am tempted to add another line: Read with Joy. A recovery of joy is possible in critical reading. I am a Christian, and I have integrated critical reading into my devotional life. I hope others can do the same.
      There are still canon wars on campus (see my other writings in canon series). I don’t think that to create a new world of inclusion and love we need to burn the books of the past. We do, however, need to live differently with respect to them.
      1. I agree fully on both points. Though I can read the Greek and French and a bit of German, none of that is with comfort or critical ease.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Extollager says:

        The list of canonical works that I usually give to my students is a reconstruction by W. C. Dowling of what undergrads at Rutgers (as I recall, or Cornell — don’t have the list at hand) were expected to have read by the time they took exams for their degrees. I suppose many Ph.D.s now will not have read all those works. But that’s not the main point I would make, which is that it does more harm than good to impart to students that such lists are artifacts of “white male patriarchy.” Surely, if that is even true at all (it’s not obvious to me), that is one of the less important things about such lists.

        It seems obvious to me that the habits of English departments today work directly against the kind of reading for which Lewis contends in Experiment. He would have us approach a literary work (I decline to say “text”) receptively, our “defenses down,” desiring to understand it accurately and fairly and to derive from it enjoyment that, however much more sophisticated we have become since then, retains that youthful capacity that made us readers to begin with. In contrast to this, English departments today, with their emphasis on consciously arming oneself with a critical “lens,” inculcate reading habits of “interrogation,” suspicion of unacceptable values, and so on. In short, they do their best to make sure we always read as right-thinking (or rather left-thinking), vigilant detectors of Privilege, Oppression, etc. Every act of reading is to clamp every more strongly on the student the sentiments of progressivism. Good heavens, listen to these people talk and you will need no further proof of what I’m saying.

        Good reading becomes a vulnerable and a furtive thing. As I said to one of my students: “You love a good book? Welcome to the underground.” That is my private motto for much of my teaching. I agree with Lewis (in Image and Imagination, p. 66) about the plight of “a beginner who was threatening to study literature before he had learned to enjoy it.” It needs to be recognized that many undergrads are, in important ways, beginners. They have read few great works, they have already been processed and kneaded into (broadly) political sentiments that will compromise their ability to read “Lewisly” — and so they need to be (to a considerable degree) like Mark Studdock and Jane Studdock in That Hideous Strength, reading with enjoyment, receptive to un-learning so much that they have absorbed from the atmosphere of our time.

        Yes, they’ll need to write papers and so on, but the assignments should be designed so as, if possible, to increase enjoyment of the works discussed, and -not- as performances of the student’s cleverness or as rituals of political conformity.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Extollager: I agree with you. It’s not about producing critical thinkers and imbuing them with a deep love and appreciation for good literature. It’s about judging according to a form (i.e. what is the gender, race, sexual orientation or proclivities of the author or subject matter). Rather than thinking what a great book. Certain college professors and consequently their students can’t see beyond the above prerequisites. They are also determined to see modernistic themes where none exist.

          This is a shame. As I mentioned in my blog review of this book. It seems that students are not taught how to think but rather what to think.

          P.S. I too belong to the underground.

          Like

        • sharonpaula says:

          Extollager: I agree with you. It’s not about producing critical thinkers and imbuing them with a deep love and appreciation for good literature. It’s about judging according to a form (i.e. what is the gender, race, sexual orientation or proclivities of the author or subject matter). Rather than thinking what a great book. Certain college professors and consequently their students can’t see beyond the above prerequisites. They are also determined to see modernistic themes where none exist.

          This is a shame. As I mentioned in my blog review of this book. It seems that students are not taught how to think but rather what to think.

          P.S. I too belong to the underground.

          Like

        • Extollager: I agree with you. It’s not about producing critical thinkers and imbuing them with a deep love and appreciation for good literature. It’s about judging according to a form (i.e. what is the gender, race, sexual orientation or proclivities of the author or subject matter). Rather than thinking what a great book. Certain college professors and consequently their students can’t see beyond the above prerequisites. They are also determined to see modernistic themes where none exist.

          This is a shame. As I mentioned in my blog review of this book. It seems that students are not taught how to think but rather what to think.

          P.S. I too belong to the underground.

          Sorry if I already posted this. I’m having a hard time with wordpress.

          Like

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I think I want a t-shirt with “Receptive to Un-learning” (but I’m not sure where and when I’d dare to wear it).

          (I’ve often thought it would be fun to have a t-shirt with (something recognizably evocative of) a shot from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange of Malcolm McDowell as Alex during application of the Ludivico technique, and the caption “Currently Undergoing Political Correction” – if I had both t-shirts, I could switch off between them – except that I’d be even less sure where and when I’d dare to wear this one, thinking one must be prudent in selecting causes quite conceivably leading to the experience of who-knows-how-much ‘battery’, or what more.)

          Like

      • Extollager says:

        Brenton, a belated response to one of your comments. You wrote, –I think canon lists like this one undeniably exhibit “white male patriarchy.” I would add “upper class”–

        Lewis helps us to see that this is a red herring. The point of the canon is NOT the backgrounds of the authors but the experiences of the READERS. By and large, works that are recognized as “canonical” are ones that, generation after generation, have been found to be delightful, to be insightful, to demonstrate what a form (say the Petrarchan sonnet) is all about, etc.

        To those who dislike the idea of the canon, I would ask: Could you tell me what the works are that are there not because they reward and invite good reading, but because of their authors’ backgrounds? You can then make the case for subtractions, if desired.

        Conversely, I would also ask: What are the works that have been shown to reward good reading over the years, that are neglected by typical lists of canonical works? Remember that we are talking about the reading that the work invites and rewards. It is not appropriate to nominate works that are of interest, not on account of the reading they elicit, but on account of the authors’ biographies. That is, it’s not appropriate to nominate them as works that should be recognized as canonical. They might be of social or even pathological interest. They might be “curiosa,” to use a term one doesn’t see any more.

        I would say that the element of time should factor in when we talk about what is canonical and what isn’t. We tend to rate too highly the tastes (or “official” tastes) of our time. We can’t get free of our time-boundedness if we focus on writing of our own time. (See again Lewis’s indispensable “On the Reading of Old Books.”) Of course there may be some reason or other for reading almost anything. But given the limitations of a few precious years of college, I think the idea of the canon is really helpful as a means of ensuring that students have a chance to read fairly widely and deeply in works that undoubtedly have been found significant for multiple generations, for men and for women, for people of varying social ranks and ethnicities and so on. Dickens is an obvious example of an author who blazes forth as obviously meeting this criterion, as is Shakespeare and quite a few others.

        One thing I’m not going into here, but that I grant has some importance, since part of an Enfglish degree does need to be historical, is the place of works that perhaps do not have a great record of inviting good reading but that seem to be important for the history of literature and taste. I wish I could think of a good example. Would Thackeray’s Vanity Fair possibly be an example? No one doubts that Vanity Fair has importance historically. …gotta leave for now.

        Like

        • I’m sorry I can’t fully engage here, Dale. You’ll see I’m pretty supportive of a canon. I also can’t speak for the anti-canon folk. My experience with English faculties in the US, UK and Canada have been super positive. I support the canon for a few reasons:
          1. It’s important historically.
          2. It is flexible and leaky on the borders.
          3. It is always adapting.
          4. It is filled with great books.
          5. The reason you mention: it sits as a criticism of our current cultural modes.

          I still think it is undeniable it passes on patriarchy and a certain class perspective. I just don’t happen to think we need to be afraid of that. I am “ideology”–I see value in asking questions of what our literature does. But I am not the turn and burn flavour. I think we need to read great books, and hope that never changes.

          Indeed, I wouldn’t mind writing one of them. Just saying.

          Like

          • Extollager says:

            We obviously agree on a great deal that’s important, Brenton, and that would align us with Lewis.

            I am a bit curious, though. You assert that the canon “passes on patriarchy and a certain class perspective.”

            1.Is this something you believe because you were told this by authorities you trust? If so, do you find them trustworthy in other matters?
            2.If it’s not something you found out by your own reading widely in the canon, are you perhaps vulnerable to an eisegesis kind of situation in which you see “patriarchy and a certain class perspective” when you do read canonical works, because you have been told you should that’s what you should see?
            And if they are there, is that necessarily a very important part of what’s to be encountered there?
            Are we upset on behalf of (our notion of) “others” whom we regard as neglected or misrepresented by “texts”? But it’s interesting to think that it’s precisely the canon that women wanted to study when women were, by and large, not admitted to universities.
            3.Is “patriarchy” simply bad? Are rather are there not, in fact, patriarchies, some of which may be or have been relatively good–any manifestation of the City of Man being, inevitably, flawed over against absolute justice, goodness, mercy?
            4.Lewis argues in The Abolition of Man that it’s characteristic of cultures to go astray by taking some element of the Tao and greatly inflating it at the expense of other elements. I think our time is doing that as regards “equality.” Aside from matters susceptible to mathematics or mere logic, “equality” — with regard to human affairs — must be a subset of justice. I’m afraid that much of the clamor made by egalitarians coexists with a rejection of the Tao. They are absolutely bound to go wrong.
            5.You say the canon “passes on…a certain class perspective.” Which class was that? I find in the canonical writers and their works a great variety of classes, from aristocratic Malory (for whom “common” folk scarcely exist; when Lancelot rescues Guinevere and a commoner gets in the way, he flattens the man with a backhand punch or slap–you don’t use a sword on a commoner!) to workingman Bunyan, from Langland’s Piers Plowman’s peasant perspective and Samuel Johnson blowing off patronage to the brilliant court of the Gawain-poet. But I am wary of the “class” thing which probably bears embedded in it a host of Marxist and materialist assumptions that might not be very relevant to good Lewisian reading of the works.
            In short, the habits of today’s academic establishment should be everywhere challenged; it is far more deserving of skepticism than the canon is. It surely is often guilty of encouraging bad reading. I leave with an example. In 1987 I took a Shakespeare course at the University of Illinois. Inevitably the phrase about “the divine Desdemona” prompted a predictable bit of feminism. But what if Desdemona, in her grace and beauty, really participates in, manifests, the divine? What is Renaissance Platonism actually could have something to say to us reductivist, raceclassandgender-obsessed readers?
            At the least, undergrads need a living, exciting encounter with such things, with (e.g.) the ontological hierarchy explained in Schumacher’s Guide for the Perplexed and so on on, to read Shakespeare attentively, un-learning our often paltry assumptions about the human. Time enough to decide for ourselves if Desdemona amounts to little more than an exhibit in a feminist museum of literary victims of patriarchy…
            Remember Charles Williams: “Great poets mean what they say.” I would like my students to become sensitivzed as readers to what the works are saying, even if, or perhaps especially if, they say things different from what is sanctioned in our time of the iPad and the adolescent suicide note.

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            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              It seems to me “the habits of today’s academic establishment should be everywhere challenged” is naturally (and ought to be, practically) a part of the “value in asking questions of what our literature does.”

              I haven’t gone properly rereading to check before commenting, but I remember there being something interesting in one of Lewis’s first major publications, the collaborative-in-debate with Tillyard Personal Heresy, about ‘creative misreading’ (with some sense that Lewis returns to this from time to time down the years). I suppose it ought, somehow, to be pat of this conversation, with respect to its ups as well as its downs.

              Like

              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                No, ‘pat’ wasn’t a dialect pronunciation picked up while living in Massachusetts: ‘part’ (with apologies)!

                Like

      • Whatever! This is a wonderful exercise and discussion. The sort of thing that keeps us nimble and fired up for “literature.” I don’t find any of the books listed obscure and fortunately am familiar with all but one or two. What fun!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Fantastic! I love this work, and it’s nice to see the references all out in a list.

    Like

  3. jaredlobdell says:

    Geoffrey Chaucer, surely? Note also: D. H. Lawrence not H. Lawrence?

    Like

  4. Extollager says:

    Perhaps this piece, which I wrote for a blog devoted to weird fiction, would be of interest:

    http://wormwoodiana.blogspot.com/2016/04/guest-post-machens-glitter-of-brook-and.html

    Liked by 1 person

  5. danaames says:

    Percy Bysshe Shelley – though he was good buddies with Byron…

    Dana

    Liked by 1 person

  6. sharonpaula says:

    I enjoyed this review. I like how you say that Lewis turns things on its head by defining what makes a good reader. I found that interesting too. Especially when he said that people don’t have bad taste in books but a taste for bad books. I also appreciated his comments on literary vs. unliterary readers. Very enlightening. I recently wrote a review on this same book: http://sharonhenning.blogspot.com/2016/08/an-experiment-in-criticism-by-cs-lewis.html

    Liked by 1 person

  7. sharonpaula says:

    If you don’t mind, I’m linking this post to my blog so reader there can come and read your post.

    Like

  8. Truly helpful–thank you for your herculean efforts here!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hannah says:

    I haven’t read ‘An Experiment in Criticism’ yet, so was wondering if he also referred to some of his own books and especially ‘The Abolition of Man’, as these discussions remind me of that – his men without chests with his brilliant analysis of how they came about.

    Like

    • Hi Hanna, I don’t think he referred directly to anything he’s written, but you will find that his literary criticism is kind of like his cultural criticism: he looks at things upside down, he roots himself to faith, myth, and literature, and he is both hard-to-the-wall and funny. This book is the literary criticism, and is much easier than Abolition of Man (which does cover literature, but is really about our culture).

      Like

  10. Extollager says:

    I really wish everyone would take a few minutes and read Chapter IV of Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost, on “Primary Epic,” whether or not that sounds dull or forbidding or enticing. Here you will glimpse what it meant to be well-read in the way Tolkien and Lewis were well-read–what it meant to have had a humane, as opposed to a politicized, education. You really learn something about how poetry works, about imagination and ritual, from these seven pages. You come away not merely thinking “I want to read The Iliad, I want to read Modern Painters”– but “I want to be able to think like that.” There’s a roundedness and warmth here that a modern English education doesn’t even try to impart–call it “genial.” You could go all the way up to Ph.D, level, you could become a member of an English faculty, and, I suppose, hardly ever encounter this, and yet I think Lewis’s original readers would have felt more like Lewis was doing very well something they found basically familiar, not that this was something strange to their academic culture–as it seems it would be today. If I overstate, it’s not by much.

    Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      We had a lovely talk in the 1980s from Nan Dunbar at the Oxford Lewis Soc, in which, among other things, she told how this chapter was then required reading for Oxford undergraduate Classicists. (I write before trying to find out if that is still the case.) Her obituary by Nigel Wilson in The Independent tells that her 1965 “move to Somerville confronted her with the challenges that face all Oxford tutors. She was not a person to take obligations lightly, and proved herself a very attentive tutor, who realised that many of her pupils had not had the traditional rigorous training at school.” (She never studied at Oxford, and, as noted, did not start teaching there until two years after the death of Lewis, but her obituary in The Scotsman notes, “She would take on any challenge, and became involved in long, erudite and witty correspondence with public figures, such as CS Lewis and Hugh Trevor-Roper.” I can’t recall if she already knew Lewis when both started teaching at Cambridge in the mid-1950s.)

      Like

  11. Extollager says:

    There is much that we can do apart from the university. Compiling lists like the one Brenton has offered and reading!

    Let’s hear it for autodidacts who did amazing philological things with fewer resources than we have. here is the great Tom Shippey on the amazing Joe Wright–go to about 24:00:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07mvd5z

    Of course there’s more to this audio feature than “just” Shippey on Wright (grin).

    Liked by 1 person

  12. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thanks for this splendid post (and all the work that went into preparing it)! The lists look ideal for printing and clipping out and putting in a copy of An Experiment in Criticism to supply that lack of authorial index and bibliography you note, so page numbers could easily be added to the list entries as one read – also where it is a case of the sort of “echoes from mythology, children’s fiction, the poets, Arthurian tales, and the Bible” you mention rather than of naming a work (assuming one recognizes and can place them!).

    Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      This fine project of yours reminds me that when Dan Hamilton visited The Kilns in the late 1980s/early 1990s, one of the things that came up in the course of our very enjoyable conversation was (if I remember it correctly) he was assiduously noting in the course of his (re)reading all works and authors mentioned by Lewis (and, I think also, George MacDonald)!

      Wretched correspondent that I am, I am ashamed to say, I have never properly kept up with him – and do not know what he may have published of this labor of love, or where.

      Like

      • Extollager says:

        It would be interesting to compile a list of the authors cited significantly by BOTH MacDonald and Lewis. I am sure the list, aside from the Bible, would include Spenser (Faerie Queene), Shakespeare, Milton, Bunyan, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, and also less-known authors such as Jacob Boehme and William Law, who became a great advocate of Boehme (“Behmen”).

        Speaking of Boehme, he is mentioned in another Lewis list-source: see “On the Reading of Old Books,” originally Lewis’s intro to a translation of On the Incarnation (by St. Athanasius), where CSL is trying to get people not just to read 20th-century authors but early ones because, though they will have errors, they won’t have OUR errors, and are of great help in seeing more of the depth and breadth of Christian thought and feeling. This little essay has been a life-influencer for me. (I seem to have read it for the first time on 25 Jan. 1977–a red-letter day.) .Anyway, Lewis mentions St. Luke, St. Paul, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, the Anglican Joseph Butler, the Anglican Richard Hooker, Dante and Bunyan, François de Sales, Pascal, Samuel Johnson, Theologia Germanica, The Scale of Perfection, William Law, and others. Don’t miss that translation of St. Athanasius, by the way, which I believe the St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press keeps in print in paperback, with Lewis’s intro. The intro was reprinted in God in the Dock.

        Like

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Lewis discusses reading Boehme in the Everyman ed. in a journal letter of early January 1930 to Arthur Greeves (referring back to it on 27 February). Williams includes quotations from several of Boehme’s works in The New Christian Year (another of those wonderful ‘centrifugal’ reading-list like works: the Williams Soc site has a link with a handy way to start getting acquainted online). I’ve read to little Barfield to know if he attends (much) to Boehme, but Steiner wrote a book published in English translation in 1911 as Mystics of the Renaissance and their Relation to Modern Thought, including Meister Eckhart, Tauler, Paracelsus, Jacob Boehme, Giordano Bruno, and others (scans available in the Internet Archive).

          Like

  13. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    As Extollager finely notes, in this “this testament of a lifelong reader”, Lewis “speaks from memory of innumerable hours of happy reading and his feeling is infectious.” I think that’s true of his earlier scholarly books, too (as well as various essays, for that matter – and letters, when eventually published) – indeed, different people have even sometimes remarked a bit ruefully how they found one or another (minor) medieval or Renaissance work much less interesting than Lewis’s vivid glimpse which brought them to try it had led them to expect.

    But, as you and Extollager both suggest, there is something especially relaxed and intimate about how Lewis goes about it, here, as well as the impressive fruit of a life’s familiarity with and enjoyment of ‘works of art’. It struck me as I read that this seemed distinctly true, though with various differences, of his other late works, too: The Discarded Image, Studies in Words, Letter to Malcolm.* They are, each in its own way, more than vintage Lewis – distilled to a sort of brandy rather than being simply fine wine (to continue the image) but emphatically one which does not require anybody to be a connoisseur to appreciate it. They send us out exhilarated but clear-headedly thirsting for more, for the works enjoyed and commended.

    More generally, this seems a characteristic of the non-fiction prose of Tolkien and Williams and Barfield, too – they are ‘centrifugal’, sending us out to try what they like or see the interest and virtue of, where they do not simply ‘like’ in every respect – as sharonpaula suggests, giving us something new to think about (or think about anew) and helping teach us how to think, rather than what to think about what they mention.

    Like

  14. Extollager says:

    Here’s another list from CSL. This is from a letter to J.O. Reed, 8 July 1947. Lewis advised: “The important thing before coming up [to Oxford] is not a ‘course’ but as much reading and book-buying as you can possibly afford without getting tired or bankrupt. Anything between 1400 and 1830 is grist to your mill, and now is the time for any of the long authors: Chaucer, Malory, Sidney, Spenser, Marlow, Shakespeare, B. Johnson [I think he means Ben Jonson], Thos. Browne, Burton, Walton, Donne, Bunyan, Dryden, Addison, Pope, Swift, Thomson, Richardson, Fielding, Johnson, Boswell, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Jane Austen, Lamb, Hazlitt, de Quincey.” So there’s 30 authors, to which one may add Sir Walter Scott. Note that these are “long” authors—authors who wrote long things or who wrote a lot that you should read, I take it– and so no George Herbert, Blake, etc. Omission of Milton has to be just an oversight.

    Dale Nelson

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  15. Extollager says:

    Here’s something interesting from a letter CSL wrote to Robert Metcalf, who had wanted “his ideas on the best in literature that the trustees of a college could make certain that al;l of the students absorbed.” Lewis wrote, 25 Aug. 1959:
    “I don’t feel at all qualified to contribute to a ‘master’ list of writings. The languages I don’t know are of course very much more numerous than those I know [so Lewis evidently assumes that if we are talking about reading a literary work for college credit, the reading will be of the work in its original language]; and even in the languages I do know there are a great many books I have not read. And I rather doubt whether a list of masterpieces picked from all over the world—mostly, I presume, to be read in translations?—is a v. useful thing.
    “I would rather see young men beginning from where they are and being led from one thing to another: e.g. that Milton shd. Lead them either to Virgil and Homer (and therefore to a really serious study of Latin or Greek) or to Dante (and therefore to a whole course of Medieval and Italian studies). That, after all, is how every educated person’s development has actually come about,” etc.
    There’s an interesting letter somewhere in which CSL lists the authors or works that someone should have read prior to studying medieval literature at the university… maybe I can find it.
    I like the compilation of lists such as we have been discussing here. For British works, if you haven’t got them a good way to get going is to buy the two volumes of the Norton Anthology of English Literature—and note well, I recommend that you buy early editions! These may be had very cheap and they will also, I imagine, show a lot less of the influence of political correctness.
    Let me suggest also that you peruse the list of the Everyman’s Library volumes of Lewis’s youth. (Link below.) These were affordable books he turned to again and again. For example, it was one of these that he recommended to someone for Beaumont and Fletcher’s Plays (including The Faithful Sheherdess, which he loved as a young man).
    http://scribblemonger.com/elcollect/elCatalog.pl
    These pleasant little volumes used to show up at “Friends of the Library” sales, used book stores, etc. Individual titles may be had very cheap, while others are more costly, if you go to abebooks.com, etc. If you find a cheap nice copy of the Everyman Phantastes, be sure to tell us all about it so we can wrestle with envy.
    Dale Nelson

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    • Well done! You found it–and more it looks like. I am on the road and so haven’t been able to follow up properly. But the letter from Lewis to Metcalf is part of a post to be published on Wednesday called, “Why CSL Says My Reading Program is Wrong.”
      Hope to catch up soon.

      Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      ‘Envied’ is not the right word, but Lewis was delighted and fascinated with his old pupil and friend, Martin Lings, having learned Persian, as he’d heard there were wonderful things in it and wished he could find out for himself.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Extollager says:

    Faithful Shepherdess–sorry.

    Like

  17. Extollager says:

    A little more on lists from Lewis:
    1.It’s likely we’re moved to note these authors and books in part because they mattered to Lewis. I suppose most people have taken an interest in certain things thanks to the influence of friends. Something like that may be happening here. It makes sense to compile Lewisian lists, just as we might write ourselves notes of books or movies, etc., that a friend recommends (or wish we had).
    2.Following up on Lewis’s recommendations helps those of us who care about literature to make up for the increasing neglect by English faculties of earlier writing, as opposed to modern and even current writing. In connection with this neglect, I’d refer interested people to pages 242-243 of Edwards’ biography of Tolkien (Hale, 2014). Edwards says that “over the following half-century [i.e. second half of the 20th C], even at Oxford, university English faculties gradually stripped the syllabuses of their historical elements, which became, at best, options taken by a diminishing few, where they were not suppressed altogether, and replaced by fashionable (and intellectually negligible) alternatives (literary theory, post-colonial this or that, and such things). ….Most Oxford undergraduates, then as later, saw Old English as a pointless chore of cribs and cramming, and never passed to truly literary appreciation of the texts. They were only too happy to skimp on the hard study required so as to pass to less challenging, or more immediately rewarding, topics; and in this a good and growing proportion of the faculty were happy to encourage them,” etc.
    It has happened so quickly! The midcentury struggle in Oxford concerned reducing or eliminating Old English studies to free up time for study of Victorian literature (to perhaps oversimplify). But now, of course, students are likely to read less of anything published before their own time. University time increasingly becomes a period to immerse oneself precisely in the current, the fashionable, etc. I think of a former colleague at my university who moved on teach in another state. He was enormously likable and I learned from him about blues music, etc. But his official area of study was American literature. I had little sense that he was all that widely read in it. His interest was largely in pop culture—movies, popular music, Westerns, etc. And he certainly knew Theory. Even he was a bit bemused by his anecdote of the student who came up to him and said this class would be the third one in which she’d read Toni Morrison’s Beloved….
    So to connect with an earlier, more central and humane and also more demanding experience of literature, we turn to Lewis and his lists. Demanding? Well, Lewis himself said reading good books takes effort: “I know well from experience that state of mind in which one wants immediate and certain pleasure from a book, for nothing – i.e. without paying the price of that slight persistence, that almost imperceptible tendency not to go on, which, to be honest, nearly always accompanies the reading of [a] good book.” But he adds that a little sense of labor can be, or become, an element in the pleasure of reading. (Lewis to Greeves, 10 Jan. 1932)
    3.But, as in Experiment in Criticism, all the way back in 1932 (8 April, to his brother) Lewis contrasts those who really enjoy reading over against those who make a career of it (for several years in college and perhaps for their lives). “I wonder can you imagine how reassuring your bit about Spenser is to me who spend my time trying to get unwilling hobble-de-hoys to read poetry at all? One begins to wonder whether literature is not, after all, a failure. [Perhaps many English professors and grad students have determined, not fully consciously, that it is a failure, especially when compared to the gratifications of “critical thinking”—i.e. Being Clever–about “texts” where almost anything manmade can be a “text.” Doesn’t the influential deconstructionist doctrine amount to a faith that a literary work is always a failure, as a thing made and a thing said by an author? Why not, then study the signifiers in pulp novels or pornography?] Then comes your account of the Faerie Queene on your office table, and one remembers that all the professed ‘students of literature’ don’t matter a rap, and that the whole thing goes on, unconcerned by the fluctuations of the kind of ‘taste’ that gets itself printed, living from generation to generation in the minds of the few disinterested people who sit down alone and read what they like and find that it turns out to be just the things that every one has liked since they were written.” Well, what were those things everyone has liked? Basically: the canon, i.e. works that speak to –good readers- generation by generation.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      It’s interesting how (in my experience) we can take up ‘bare’ recommendations of works of interest because we have a sense we can trust the recommender’s favo(u)rable judgement, while ignoring the same person’s disrecommendations. (Which reminds me of things Lewis said about the futility of people reviewing things for which they have no taste or sympathy.)

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  18. I hesitate to stick my paw into such an erudite thread, especially because, although I have a degree in English Lit, I “got away” with coming to my Master’s with Bachelors in something else (Theology and Journalism), so I had virtually no formal background in reading the classics.

    Still, I’d like to make a couple of tiny points. One, in his letters CSL was very growly about people interested in him as a person. (We Americans are especially guilty of this.) He thought it was worse than unnecessary to know his life experiences down to what he ate for tea. He said the writings should speak for themselves.

    Two, I may have missed mention of this category, but I believe he also recommended some of the Christian mystics: Julian of Norwich, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa (of Avila, I think; there are several).

    Three, being too concerned with -ist-type biases can be tiresome and get one off track. I loved Alice in Wonderland long before I knew all the political ramifications in it–and I won’t let them spoil it for me now.

    Four, when you posted your reading list at the end of 2012, Brenton, I dug out the list of books I had made based on recommendations at CSL conferences. I have been pecking away at it ever since. My husband Jerry and I have agreed to make two copies of your list in this post, one for each of us, check off all the books we own (having a set of The Great Books helps), check off what we have already read (having read something so long ago we have forgotten it still counts–we don’t have time left to read everything twice), and buy out the local used bookstore for the rest.

    We will devote 2017 to each reading whatever we want from the list in our own order and at our own speed, surfacing periodically to share what we’re seeing. (Of course we can read dumb novels and cartoon books in between to rest our brains.) Some of it is heavy going. I got bogged down in Spenser last year and I kind of skimmed OHEL–I didn’t have the background for it–just enjoying CSL’s droll commentary and letting the rest go. Got bogged down in that, too.

    We actually started our ambitious program early–yesterday–reading The Wind in the Willows aloud–and would you believe we both discovered that for all our affection for it and despite the quotes from it which are part of the fabric of our lives, neither one of us had ever really read it? So we’re having fun together and it’s still only 2016!

    Sorry. Didn’t mean to write as much as the Erudites.

    Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Your reference to some of the Christian mystics encourages me to try to say something I was thinking about after the earlier examples of recommendations in letters, which is, the sense I have of quite a number and variety of lists of recommendations, often more or less specific in response to a specific question or request from his correspondent, as well as running discussions of current (re)reading with various friends – which can branch off strikingly, like his reporting, “I have finished [Mary Webb’s] Precious Bane and think I have enjoyed it more than any novel since the Brontë’s. Why do women write such good novels.” (To Arthur Greeves – who he thought might have recommended it, but couldn’t remember for sure, and was a couple weeks later “So glad you approve of precious bane.”)

      As to interest in someone as a person, is one biography and one autobiography in the list of works mentioned in Experiment in Criticism, many or few (both lengthy, in any case)?

      Have fun shopping (always a bit dangerous, second-hand bookshops – especially if there are any bargains) and reading!

      Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Hmm… nudged by your example, I find lots of the ones I haven’t read, or haven’t read all of, are long ones (the hesitation of the slow reader…!).

      Like

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