A couple of weeks ago I wrote a little post called “Reading and the Cultural Moment, with C.S. Lewis.” Though I now think I could have said it even clearer, I was sharing once again C.S. Lewis’ critical idea that reading old books can offer a prophetic criticism of today’s cultural moment. The strengths, sins, struggles, and sanctimonious postures of a past age will be different than our own strengths, sins, struggles, and sanctimonious postures. While the people were no better or worse than us in, say, the days of Chaucer or Shakespeare or Austen, their assumptions and in-text moralities may be bracing enough to cause us to ask questions of our own assumptions and out-loud moralities. At the very least, reading these other, older books will provide us with more intellectual and imaginative diversity that can help us to see our world a little differently.
The OED word of the year is “toxic,” which is a great metaphor to describe today’s cultural moment. I suggested that old books might help us diagnose the poison in the cultural air even they are not always an antitoxin.
Although he didn’t have the precise words for it, Lewis was talking about our worldviews differ. At some point I want to press Lewis’ argument even further, asking what the potential of that encounter of “other” in literature might be. Today, though, I want to say, “Yes, but….”
And my “Yes, but…” is really the question, what do we mean by an old book? Lewis himself included authors as late as George MacDonald in his list, basically speaking about pre-20th-century authors in the 1940s and the 1950s in essays like “On the Reading of Old Books” and “De Audiendis Poetis.” Lewis spends most of his time, though, writing and thinking about books from up until Bunyan.
So what do we mean by old book today?
As soon as we allow for a “but” to Lewis’ argument, a dozen different ideas immediately pop up. In particular, what is an old book? The Goodreads Most-Read Books of the 2018 Reading Challenge list is instructive. The top 4 books are all youth books, three of them in this generation and all since 1960. J.K. Rowling and the fantasy revolution has created a generation of young readers, but it is a generation of readers who crave for great, new material.
The Goodreads most-read classics list is also instructive:
I have read them all except, embarrassingly, the second-oldest book on the list: Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925). Orwell’s books have had a resurgence since the political situation of 2016–as have sales of The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)–but 1984 (1948) is a cult classic like Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951). Animal Farm (1945) is a school book, like Harper Lee’s 1960 classic To Kill a Mockingbird–a Pulitzer Prize novel that was followed by a 1962 film that swept the Oscars.
And as we look closely, we see that almost all of the films have popular movie interpretation, including a 2013 big-budget version of The Great Gatsby, Peter Jackson‘s 2012-14 remake of The Hobbit (1937), the huge cast 2018 transformation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (1962), and the ever popular 1995 and 2005 interpretations of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813)–the only really old book on the list. Animal Farm has had poor film adaptation attempts, but it continues to be read in school and the 1984 film released in that inauspicious year has a strong cult following.
The second-newest book on the list, Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) was certainly buoyed by the recent TV series–season two was out this summer–and news of a sequel. The viral effect of films in buoying books to the top of this list is undeniable. While I’m sure my blog has globe-shaking effect on C.S. Lewis readership, the 2005 Disneyfication of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) has had a profound effect on readership. But I suspect that news of a Chronicles of Narnia Netflix series has lifted C.S. Lewis’ children’s classic to the list again.
There are some outliers here, but not in the old book category. The Diary of Anne Frank/a Young Girl (1947) is a very important book and the only biographical piece on the list. It is a widely read school book and rapidly being translated and used in curriculum throughout the world. Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist (1988) sits oddly on this list. It is a mythopoeic parable, less an allegory like Animal Farm than a theological book like The Lion or A Wrinkle in Time. But The Alchemist combines Coehlo’s global popularity–he is like the Terry Pratchett of the Portuguese-speaking world, selling an enormous amount of books–with the chic popularity and inspirational quality of the text. The Alchemist is the kind of book you see tucked under the arms of presidents and movie stars and is tremendously helpful for use in the classroom.
And it has sold a lot of copies. All of these books have, but considering how new The Alchemist is and how every movie adaptation has failed in conception, the fact that it has tied in sales with most of the Harry Potter books is pretty intriguing.
- The Hobbit (1937), #5 on Ranker, est. 100m sales, blockbuster film series, #11 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), #9 on Ranker, est. 85m sales, 120m sales in series, blockbuster film and upcoming Netflix series, school book, #48 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
- The Catcher in the Rye (1951), #13 on Ranker, est. 65m sales, cult classic, school book
- The Alchemist (1988), #14 on Ranker, est. 65m sales, cult classic, #100 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
- To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), #35 on Ranker, est. 40m sales, blockbuster film, school book, #1 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
- The Diary of Anne Frank (1947), #41 on Ranker, est. 35m sales, school book, #26 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
- 1984 (1948), #48 on Ranker, est. 30m sales, cult classic, cult film, #3 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
- The Great Gatsby (1925), est. 25m sales, blockbuster film, #9 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
- Pride and Prejudice (1813), est. 20m sales, blockbuster film and TV series, #50 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
- Animal Farm (1945), est. 20m sales, school book, #4 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
- A Wrinkle in Time (1962), est. 14m sales, blockbuster film, #16 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
- The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), less than 10m sales, TV series
By my estimation, the factors for landing on this “classics” list are sheer sales buoyed by a number of factors:
- Film, Television, or Netflix Success
- Personal Impact
- Cult Followership
- Social Moments
What would it take, then, for avid readers to dig into older classics? While all these factors are relevant, I think for older books–books that can speak prophetically from outside our culture–there needs to be a blockbuster film or new Netflix or Amazon series. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) is a gorgeous book with strong readership, but really needs a new blockbuster film for it to get picked up again. It needs, frankly, the Little Women effect, or the kind of success that came with films on Pride and Prejudice or Romeo and Juliet. I think if we want readers to pick up Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens, the Brontës, the other Austen books, Swift, Milton, Shakespeare, Spenser, Sidney, Chaucer, or Dante, there needs to be a film.
And that’s hardly going to work for some of the best books. The Divine Comedy would be simply too terrifying to film, and any garden of Eden film is going to occupy a niche market, I expect. There needs to be a leap of the reader rather than a translation of genre, I think, to re-engage with the classics.
So is the project lost? No, I don’t think so. After all, C.S. Lewis lumps a writer working just 50 years before him (GeoMac) in the “old books” category. Moreover, C.S. Lewis is himself a tool to help the reader “leap” back to older books. Narnia, The Great Divorce, Till We Have Faces, and the Ransom Cycle are soaked through with old books, from classical mythology to medieval adventure tales to the great poetry and fantasy stories of all periods.
By reading Lewis’ fiction we are reading “old books” by his definitions. As such, they help see our own culture and time from a different angle, giving us a resource for a bigger worldview. But they are also bridges to the truly great books of the past, the canon that forms our intellectual and imaginative space. And Lewis isn’t alone in this gift. Often the greatest books of the age are infused with the greatest books of other ages.
What I hope to do at some later date is take Lewis’ theory on this point and pop it out into a new context. I think Lewis gives us a framework for using books as prophetic self-criticism in new and exciting–and some problematic–ways.