Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including “The Prayer Wheel” (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and “The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church” (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.
If you find yourself wondering, just days before Christmas, what gift to offer the spiritual book-lover on your list . . . problem solved! I’ve got the perfect idea. You’re welcome.
The Reading Life: The Joy of Seeing New Worlds Through Others’ Eyes takes snippets of C.S. Lewis’s various writings, all themed around the capacious love he had for books and reading, and gathers them into a gift book that’s conveniently sized for tucking in a loved one’s stocking. (WARNING: You may not see them all the rest of Christmas morning, as they hunker down in some quiet corner and recognize Lewis’s kindred readerly spirit in these pages.)
The pieces are short and well-chosen, and often hit upon a nostalgia factor. Several times in different essays, Lewis reflects on children’s literature as a nourishing source of adult reflection. He says those stories mean something different to him as a mature man than they did in childhood, but that it’s that very timelessness that make them important to revisit. “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up,” he writes.
This attraction to myth and children’s fantasy leads him to review his friend J. R. R. Tolkien’s work; Lewis’s early reviews of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring are included in the collection, and make for fascinating reading for anyone who loves the series. He urges people to take the LOTR books seriously as literature. “The Hobbit . . . will be funniest to its younger readers, and only years later, at a tenth or twentieth reading, will they begin to realise what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.”
In a similar vein, he notes that true readers just don’t have an age-based timetable for what they find interesting:
“The neat sorting-out of books into age-groups, so dear to publishers, has only a very sketchy relation with the habits of any real readers. Those of us who are blamed when old for reading childish books were blamed when children for reading books too old for us. No reader worth his salt trots along in obedience to a time-table.”
Lewis covers some familiar and controversial questions—is it permissible to dog-ear a book? No, he insists; such behavior ought to fill us with shame. (I stubbornly dog-eared that page.) Yet he gives the thumbs-up to marginalia: he underlines, indexes, and comments in his books, particularly ones he didn’t think were very good, thereby making them his own. “I often wonder—considering how people enjoy themselves developing photos or making scrapbooks—why so few people make a hobby of their reading in this way. Many an otherwise dull book which I had to read I have enjoyed in this way, with a fine-nibbed pen in my hand: one is making something all the time and [a] book so read acquires the charm of a toy without losing that of a book.”
Not all of the essays are light-hearted love letters to the act of reading. In “The Case for Reading Old Books,” he takes on a question that plagues me constantly: what will turn out to have been the blindnesses of our own age? When we read writers across the centuries, we are alive to their false assumptions in a way they were not able to be:
“Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny . . .”
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Source: Religion News Service