What Counts as a Classic? A Conversation with C.S. Lewis and Goodreads

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.

For book sales are a factor. Using a couple of lists–one from Wikipedia and one on Ranker–here is what the popularity factor looks like:

  1. The Hobbit (1937), #5 on Ranker, est. 100m sales, blockbuster film series, #11 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
  2. 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
  3. The Catcher in the Rye (1951), #13 on Ranker, est. 65m sales, cult classic, school book
  4. The Alchemist (1988), #14 on Ranker, est. 65m sales, cult classic, #100 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), #35 on Ranker, est. 40m sales, blockbuster film, school book, #1 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
  6. The Diary of Anne Frank (1947), #41 on Ranker, est. 35m sales, school book, #26 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
  7. 1984 (1948), #48 on Ranker, est. 30m sales, cult classic, cult film, #3 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
  8. The Great Gatsby (1925), est. 25m sales, blockbuster film, #9 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
  9. Pride and Prejudice (1813), est. 20m sales, blockbuster film and TV series, #50 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
  10. Animal Farm (1945), est. 20m sales, school book, #4 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
  11. A Wrinkle in Time (1962), est. 14m sales, blockbuster film, #16 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
  12. 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:

  1. Film, Television, or Netflix Success
  2. Personal Impact
  3. Cult Followership
  4. 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. NarniaThe Great DivorceTill 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.

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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48 Responses to What Counts as a Classic? A Conversation with C.S. Lewis and Goodreads

  1. dalejamesnelson says:

    I think it would be a shame if the discussion got diverted by the MacDonald reference, since aside from Lewis mentioning a personal “old favorite,” we can get a sense of what “old” means easily enough. I’d resort to “De Descriptione Temporum” and suggest that anything published before Jane Austen’s floruit would be about right. And, of course, Lewis wasn’t saying that all post-Austen authors should be avoided, whether in the context of literary reading or of spiritual reading. But for purposes of discussing his really pretty urgent recommendation about reading old books, we might take circa 1820 as being the cutoff.

    You rightly point out that MacDonald wasn’t an “old” author. But he was “old” for Lewis in a subjective sense, since Lewis started reading MacDonald in his teens.

    Do you have access to Thomas Oden’s book After Modernity…What? (1990). Pages 202-213 present a bibliography of “Perennial Resources for Ministry” that would be of interest. “This appendix addresses the practical problem of building a personal, pastoral, or church library that will make available to the community of faith key texts of classical Christianity.”

    Happily, in the 30 years since Oden compiled the list, a lot more has become available. For example, there’s St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press’s series of inexpensive paperbacks of classic patristic texts. The single best source might be Eighth Day Books. They advertise a sale today and tomorrow.


    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      “I’d resort to ‘De Descriptione Temporum’ and suggest that anything published before Jane Austen’s floruit would be about right.” I’d heartily second that, and yet… Another accent in ‘DDT’ is how much things have changed in Lewis’s own lifetime – the senses in which he is a ‘dinosaur’.

      For instance, I wonder how much those changes have to do with his explicit critical remarks elsewhere about something by Derek Traversi (only 14 years his junior) as literary critic. (I’ll have to search for where: ‘Modern theology and biblical criticism’, perhaps?) And, Lewis says somewhere (in a letter? or is it something he published?) something to the effect of, how when he was younger he thought the English language had not really changed much from the 19th to the 20th century, but later concluded it had in fact changed considerably.

      I remember how much-bruited-about Jan Kott’s Shakespeare, Our Contemporary (1964) used to be (in which, the Wikipediast tells me, “he interpreted the plays in the light of philosophical and existential experiences of the 20th century, augmented with his own life’s story”). But, how much, or little, does a more usual sense (I think) of ‘contemporary’ as ‘overlapping in lifetimes’, matter? For example, Lewis was 6 when MacDonald died, I was 6 when Lewis died: what effects may those facts have? Your observation “he was ‘old’ for Lewis in a subjective sense, since Lewis started reading MacDonald in his teens” invites further reflection, here.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comments, Dale. I don’t think we are limited by Lewis (or anyone) on what it means to go deeply into old books. The resources that you provide are excellent. I’ve talked here about the canon in various ways, linked below. I have made it part of my task in the last 15 years of my life to recover the books that have been lost to me in a poor upbringing–poor both in economic poverty and available education. I’m there on this project.
      So I personally define “old books” as before 1960, 50 years or so, and before a turn in the era. But I define classics as pre-20th century, for my reference only.
      But you are going to probably hate the next post in this series, frankly. As committed as I am to the canon both of great Western books and the classical Christian library, and am living my life to recover both, I think we are impoverished if we don’t recognize two things. First, the canon has always been on the move, leaving some authors behind and gaining others. Second, if Lewis is right that old books provide an antiserum of sorts, then we are limiting the impact of literature by choosing the very thin band of experience represented by our Western canon. We cannot shoot out in all directions at once, but we should be constantly seeking other voices in our books. And in that way the canon changes, which is why I think Virginia Woolf, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jane Austen, Jorge Luis Borges, Emily Dickenson, and Langston Hughes should have a place there.
      So that’s me. I might be overly biased on Hopkins, to be fair.
      It’s funny, I was tinkering with some old notes on Thomas Oden today. I’ve always appreciated 8th day books.

      Liked by 1 person

      • dalejamesnelson says:

        Has anyone else here seen the curriculum of the short-lived Rose Hill College, a little over 20 years ago?

        Click to access rose_hill_college_catalogue.pdf

        Read it and weep.

        Dale Nelson

        Liked by 1 person

      • dalejamesnelson says:

        Brenton wrote, “And in that way the canon changes, which is why I think Virginia Woolf, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jane Austen, Jorge Luis Borges, Emily Dickenson, and Langston Hughes should have a place there.”

        Surely Austen, Dickinson, and Hopkins have been regarded as standard authors (perhaps a more useful term sometimes than “canonical” — but they are certainly “canonical”) for many decades.

        But I look at the matter of a literary canon mostly from the point of view of having been a university teacher of undergraduates till my retirement this year. I want to say, again and again: please bear in mind that, when one advocates the admission of more recent authors, more authors who seem to oneself to represent certain “under-represented” constituencies, and when one wants lots of Theory — all of that has implications for what gets pushed off the reading list and the classroom. It would be interesting and, I am sure, for myself, depressing, to see which authors and which works have pretty much been pushed off the raft for the sake of recent authors and trendy theories. I need to turn the computer over to someone else, so I will wrap this up, but I suspect that Sir Walter Scott is grossly under-studied considering his importance (no Scott, no Tolstoy?) and his considerable (if largely unfashionable) literary merits. What about Sir Thomas Browne? And so on.


        Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I’m going to try to take up some of this down below (on 20 Dec.) as a ‘new’ comment…


        • Thanks for this Dale. I think that our contexts for teaching will be pretty different. I like a pretty diverse syllabus, but if I had to teach a “canon” course I would use canonical authors, but might use some retellings or readings from other voices (like women storytellers or scholars, or minorities, or people from poorer classes).


  2. dalejamesnelson says:

    Re; Eighth Day Books, look here:


    I think this is very close to being exactly what Lewis wanted to see, in his comment in “On the Reading of Old Books” (his preface to that translation of On the Incarnation, by St. Athanasius.

    There is far more available now than anyone is likely to be able to read — quite a change from three decades ago, when Oden made his list. I imagine Oden’s book has helped to prompt reader and publisher interest in just such publishing.


  3. dalejamesnelson says:

    I thought I had a pretty good sense of what was out there relating to Lewis & the Inklings, but —



  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I’ve only read six of the Goodreads 10 Most-Read, but was surprised how short The Great Gatsby was, when I finally read it (and how good and, as I remember both, faithful to it, the 1974 ‘blockbuster'(-ish?) movie was – which is what made me aware of it!).

    I wonder (as a slow reader) how much Length Plays a Part, too?


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Jolly to think movies may often lead someone to try the work being film-adapted!

      I wonder, these days, if video games do anything analogous? Does Dante’s Inferno (or, the Devil may Cry series) lead many to try reading Dante? (Or, their spin-offs – whether films, novelizations, comic books…?)


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Also interesting that two of those 10 are translations for English-as-mother-tongue readers. (Jonathan Bate is very interesting in The Genius of Shakespeare as to how his works were variously taken up in a big way in Germany from the 18th c. and France from the 19th c.on – and in his speculation as to how, if certain things in the 16th and 17th c. had gone differently, Lope de Vega might be as famous throughout the world as Shakespeare now is – but only Lope, among possible writers – !)


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Speaking of different mother-tongues, I wonder how much difference successful 20th- (and, now, 21st-)c.’academicism’ in prescribed spelling (as well as – or even more than? – in prescribed school reading lists) has been in different ‘linguaspheres’ in making earlier works less accessible to later readers? (My ‘unscientific’ impression is that many Dutch readers have been. for example, more effectively ‘cut off’ or ‘distanced’ or whatever the best word may be from popular 19th- or early-20th-c. mother-tongue novelists than English readers have, on account of a succession of ‘spelling reforms’ here.)


  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I’m not sure how tangentially or not, but I was struck by Crystal Downing noting in the latest Wade Center blogpost that “while most people cite Mere Christianity as key to their decision to follow Christ, Dr. Guite credited Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost. In other words, Lewis’s ability to highlight the artistry of a great Christian poet, John Milton, spoke to Guite’s heart by way of his imagination. Inspired by Lewis’s celebration of Milton’s artistry, Dr. Guite has published five books of poetry, breathing new life into the poetic form practiced by Shakespeare: the sonnet.”

    In looking up that quotation, I just encountered there a link to a post about the results of something called “The Great American Read”:


    Liked by 1 person

  6. From a Library standpoint we need to classify OLD an make a decision on what should be immediately considered for Archival protection. Anything pre-1870 is immediately “considered” but not necessarily added to the collection. However, the Robertson Library (UPEI) project booklives.ca looks at provenance history of books within our collection and for that we look at any books published before 1950. A librarian from the University of Virginia, I believe it was, (his name escapes me), coined the term “medium-rare” when discussing the vast majority of their Provenance Collection. So OLD is such a fluid term… Old by Age, Old as in outdated social constructs, or Old by Design (“they help see our own culture and time from a different angle”). Biblically speaking (because as a Bible nerd most of my life tends to be Biblically speaking), the Tanakh is probably considered by many to be just Old by Age & Socially Old… but really it should be considered “Lewis-Old” as a reflection of our own culture. This age is, arguably, more Biblical than any that has come before us. And although many think that the Torah, Prophets and Biblical Writings limits our worldview, really, if read sincerely, it does just the opposite. It appears that Lewis & Tolkien considered the Bible the quintessential “Epic Old Tale”… a great mirror that reflects humanity of every era… Oh, and you forgot Victor Hugo.

    Liked by 2 people

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Books as artefacts is a good point – rarity may relate to print-run, survival of copies, material – the vulnerability of a lot of brittle 19th-c. wood-pulp paper in contrast to earlier rag paper: the survival of books as texts usually relies on the survival of books as artefacts (even ‘digital artefacts’, though Fahrenheit 451 springs to mind…).

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yewtree says:

      I like your concept of different flavours of OLD. Very helpful


  7. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Like yourself (and Lewis) I find reading books written and set during an earlier era is a great way of putting your own era in context – the values are ostensibly different, but human nature is pretty much a constant. It’s also how I’d classify such books as ‘old’ – because they are a window into a different world. So I’d define anything written up to a decade after the war as ‘old’ inasmuch as I get a sense of a time and a place with very different values – unlike, say, the Sixties which are (for me, anyhow) still a recognisable, if embryonic, version of today. But maybe this is because i was born in the early Sixties?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Joe R. Christopher says:

    Do you notice how seldom poetic works get into these lists? Emily Dickinson once, I think, and Gerard Manley Hopkins (both 19th century)–both with short poems (even in these terms “The Wreck of the Deutschland” is short)–and Shakespeare once, I think. When we list books that are known to have influenced Lewis, don’t they include Dante’s _Divine Comedy_ and Spenser’s _Fairie Queene_? (The one time I assigned Book I of the FQ to a senior literature class, the next meeting had a large number of students glaring at me. I didn’t do it again, although I continued to assign some sonnets and the “Epithalamion.”) Wordsworth’s _The Prelude_ might be easier reading (and certainly influential on Lewis, although not as much as Dante and Spenser).


    • dalejamesnelson says:

      Oh, Dr. Christopher, if only you’d assigned the students Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves (Canon Press), which is Spenser’s Faerie Queene with spelling edited and with abundant good-humored notes. Sometime Roy Maynard overdoes them a little — but here’s the point — I assigned this FQ in a junior-level lit survey and pretty much always had good responses!

      Dale Nelson


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Interesting questions here of narrative poems (longer or shorter), dramatic poems and/or verse dramas, and bodies of a poet’s work – also, of what might be called ’embedded poetry’: in that “Great American Read” list (whatever its criteria and contours may be), it struck me that The Lord of the Rings (#5) and The Pilgrim’s Progress (#80) are memorably characterized by poems within the story – I wonder how many other examples in that list I could recall, with some brooding (or discover with some checking) – it is curious to think that on account of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien may be one of the most widely-read poets (versifiers?) of the 20th century (!). (There are of course also the Sorting Hat’s annual verse offerings in the Potter series – and, what of verse epigraphs as chapter headings, e.g., in Golden Age detective stories?)


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I’m saddened to hear of Dr. Christopher’s and heartened to hear of Dale Nelson’s FQ experiences – and a bit surprised. I read Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in translation and some Chaucer in the original in a state high school – and the Odyssey in translation and a Shakespeare a year in a state junior high school (and on into high school, and later taught Shakespeare at my old high school). And Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, Samson Agonistes, lots of Shakespeare, FQ Book I, and fair bits of Wordworth’s Prelude and long poems by Byron and Shelley as an undergraduate at the University of Evansville. It never occurred to me that any of that was unusual.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Steve says:

    Someone once defined “old” as anything published before you were born. That would make Huxley’s Brave new world old when I read it 25 years after publication. Their manners and values were different. Yet I’ve been reading Bleak House. and made a note of the description of do-gooders, which seemed remarkably up to date.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Steve says:

    Three times I’ve clicked that I like this post, and every time I reload theb page, it disappears.


  11. Pingback: What’s an “Old Book”? – Idiosophy

  12. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Nice post by Joe Hoffman taking up the conversation at Idiosophy!

    A lot of things (not unrelated) going on, receiving attention, in this conversation (including Joe Hoffman’s ‘Pingback’, now), for example:

    books as artefacts;
    books as ‘texts’;
    ‘oldness’ in various senses – and contexts;
    ‘best-selling books’;
    ‘most-read’ books;
    books, works, authors in educational curricula;
    forms (verse, prose; narrative, drama, (literary) criticism), genres.

    And, there are a lot of things going on in one of our main points of departure, Lewis’s Introduction for Sister Penelope’s translation of St. Athanasius’s The Incarnation of the Word of God (which Arend Smilde notes as from Feb. 1944), which has received a wide readership (as one of many such short works) thanks to Walter Hooper, in this case first in 1970 (in the US)/1971 (in the UK).

    One of those things is a sort of (cultural) historical approach – what is salutary to our thinking now, in the written records of how differently in various respects things have been thought about in days gone by.

    In the first paragraph, Lewis addresses the phenomena of thinking this is the realm of “professionals”, and of reading modern ‘books about’ rather than old ‘sources’ oneself. In his fifth paragraph he explicitly addresses “classics”: read as a result of academic “studies”, “English studies” in particular, with distinctions of (discernably) “great English writers”, “‘influences'” – with (late) Antique and Mediaeval Latin and Italian examples (all, is it happens, of ‘great writers’), and someone “I had found for myself at the age of sixteen” – read for pleasure, quite apart from his ‘school studies’, then, but (I interject, unoriginally)probably a part his ending up pursuing “English studies” as an additional academic subject – which opportunity made his ‘official’ main field of study.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Dale Nelson’s comment above of December 19, 2018 at 10:08 pm effectively picks up on these elements of Lewis’s 1944 Introduction, also reprinted separately from 1970 on.

    How problematical is “lots of Theory” – part of what I summarize as “modern ‘books about’ rather than old ‘sources’ oneself”, and often a part with very distinctive characteristics of its own?

    And, where the “sources” and authors are concerned, the problem of the ratio of “more recent authors” to older ones. Lewis speaks in terms of a “new book” being “still on its trial” in distinction to, and contrast with, a “great body of […] thought down the ages”.

    Perhaps to be continued…


  14. Yewtree says:

    I am possibly unusual in that I read most of the books on the list before they became films (I suppose someone had to, or they wouldn’t have been popular enough to be made into films).

    I started Pride and Prejudice but found it boring.

    My mum recommended Jane Eyre, Little Women, and Heidi, a book that seems to have gone out of fashion. My dad recommended the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and also got me into Ursula Le Guin.

    I learnt about Anne Frank at school but I think I got the book from the library.

    I hated the Great Gatsby (but loved Tender is the Night).

    What counts as an “old” book? One where the underlying assumptions of the age are different, I suppose.

    I think novels, which didn’t really take off until the early 1800s, are a quintessentially modern phenomenon (despite outliers like The Golden Ass). So you’d have to read pre-modern books to get a really different perspective. Or books from another culture.

    Nevertheless I suppose that novels of 150 years ago would be sufficiently different in their underlying assumptions to give one that shock of different perspectives.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      We had Pride and Prejudice in school, when I was 15, and Sheridan’s The Rivals the same year. One of my best friends had got Pope’s Essay on Man at a Church rummage (US)/jumble (UK) sale some years before, and we had already gotten pretty 18th-c-minded (with me, also enjoying Lovecraft’s enjoyment of the 18th c., in his pastiche verse), and Austen seemed to me to fit right in against that background, which I think helped me take to her at once – though I’m not sure how long it was till I read more of her, for fun.

      Chesterton is interesting in his Victorian Literature book on the differences between 18th- and 19th-c. novels (though I don’t think I’ve weighed his evaluation enough). And what you say about earlier prose fiction invites more pondering… As does the use of a ‘romance’ word in other languages for what English usually calls novels – though Hawthorne, for instance, deliberately entitles things ‘romances’. (Trying to look something else up in Trollope’s Autobiography recently, I encountered an astonishing comment by Hawthorne: “It is odd enough that my own individual taste is for quite another class of works than those which I myself am able to write. If I were to meet with such books as mine by another writer, I don’t believe I should be able to get through them. Have you ever read the novels of Anthony Trollope? They precisely suit my taste,— solid and substantial, written on the strength of beef and through the inspiration of ale, and just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were being made a show of. And these books are just as English as a beef-steak. Have they ever been tried in America? It needs an English residence to make them thoroughly comprehensible; but still I should think that human nature would give them success anywhere.”)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yewtree says:

        I don’t think I’ve read enough romances to know … but the thing about the novel is that it explores the internal emotional states of the characters. Whereas I think the romance was more of a novel-length epic tale. For instance, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parsifal is a romance, and so are many of the Arthurian epics (Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur for example), but I am not sure that they are the same thing as novels, if they don’t examine the internal thoughts and emotions of the characters.


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          That is another good thing to ponder – I remember being struck by Lewis’s treatment (as I remember it – but I should do some rereading!) of Chretien’s Arthurian romances with attention to what Chretien does with respect to the inner life of the characters, and Tolkien has a fascination passage in an airgraph to Christopher (25 May 1944; Letter 71) saying “‘romance’ has grown out of ‘allegory’, and its wars are still derived from the ‘inner war’ of allegory” – in a context which seems to me to be suggesting he was then thinking of The Lord of the Rings in terms of a ‘romance’ (to whatever extent?).

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yewtree says:

            In a way LOTR is a romance rather than a novel. Though there’s a lot about Frodo’s inner life.

            Tolkien also said he wanted it to be a new mythology for the English (because Anglo Saxon mythology is largely lost).

            HG Wells referred to The Time Machine as a scientific romance, I think.


  15. Yewtree says:

    A further thought on this … Jeanette Winterson says that as a child, she read the King James Bible and Shakespeare. As these were written 400 years ago, she argues, reading them gives one the vocabulary and understanding to read any book in the intervening 400 years. If they are dropped from the reading list as “too difficult”, that access is lost.

    Also a friend of mine who teaches English literature says that he often has to give students a grounding in Christianity (theology, history, culture) in order for them to understand the references in much of literature.

    Another friend overheard a conversation in a Norwich jewellery shop, between two women looking at crucifixes and crosses: “Do you want the plain one, or the one with the little man on it?” Thus not understanding hundreds of years of theological debate and the entire history of Protestant and Catholic. Yikes.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      When I was teaching in one state school as a long-term substitute (US)/supply (UK) teacher, I found out there were Bibles available and I could pass them out (King James, if I recall aright) – and met with some children insisting they did not believe I was allowed to do that, and some others objecting to the Bible being treated as literature – and when my permanent replacement finally arrived, one of the first things she did was to send the Bibles back to the ‘book room’!


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