An Experiment in Criticism
by C.S. Lewis
This book was originally published in 1961.
Jack has a number of books that get overlooked by people who want to put him in a box as a children's author or an apologist. Chief among his overlooked books, at least in the mainstream, are his works on literature and the medievalists. The Discarded Image is a particularly wonderful book that helps explain the epistemological basis of medieval society.
One of my favorite works in this area is An Experiment in Criticism. It's basically trying to answer the questions "what is good literature?" and "how do we recognize it?" In the course of answering these questions, Jack meanders through many great musings on what literature means and what reading does to us. His thoughts on visual media are particularly prescient. There are so many bon mots throughout... I thought I'd compile a "best of" list:
Impact of Media on Reading
"We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it." p. 19
"In general the parallel between the popular uses of music and of pictures is close enough. Both consist of 'using' rather than 'receiving.' Both rush hastily forward to do things with the work of art instead of waiting for it to do something to them." p. 25
"He reads only narrative because only there will he find an Event. He is deaf to the aural side of what he reads because rhythm and melody do not help him to discover who married (rescued, robbed, raped, or murdered) whom. He likes 'strip' narratives and almost wordless films because in them nothing stands between him and the Event. And he likes speed because a very swift story is all events." p. 30 ... "Let us be quite clear that the unliterary are unliterary not because they enjoy stories in these ways, but because they enjoy them in no other." p. 38
On What Makes Good Writing
"When a good writer leads you into a garden he either gives you a precise impression of that particular garden at that particular moment- it need not be long, selection is what counts- or simply says, 'It was in the garden, early.'" p. 34
"[Stylemongers] judge [style or English] neither by its sound nor by its power to communicate but by its conformity to certain arbitrary rules." p. 35
"If it means those things which 'grip' the reader of popular romance- suspense, excitement, and so forth- then I would say that every book should be entertaining. A good book will be more; it must not be less." pp.91-92
On How to Read Well
"We can find a book bad only by reading it as if it might, after all, be very good. We must empty our minds and lay ourselves open. There is no work in which holes can't be picked; no work that can succeed without a preliminary act of good will on the part of the reader." p. 116
"Good reading, therefore, though it is not essentially an affectional or moral or intellectual activity, has something in common with all three. In love we escape from our self into one other. In the moral sphere, every act of justice or charity involves putting ourselves in the other person's place and thus transcending our own competitive particularly. In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favor of the facts as they are. The primary impulse of each is to maintain and aggrandize himself. The secondary impulse is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness. In love, in virtue, in the pursuit of knowledge, and in the reception of the arts, we are doing this. Obviously this process can be described either as an enlargement or as a temporary annihilation of the self. But that is an old paradox; 'he that loseth his life shall save it.'" p. 138
"Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world... Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality." p. 140
"In the course of my inquiry I have rejected the views that literature is to be valued a) for telling us truths about life, b) as an aid to culture. I have also said that, while we read, we must treat the reception of the work we are reading as an end in itself. And I have discussed from the Vigilants' belief that nothing can be good as literature which is not good simply."p. 130
Other Words of Wisdom
"The pleasure of myth depends hardly at all on such usual narrative attractions as suspense or surprise. Even at a first hearing it is felt to be inevitable." p.43
"Nothing is more characteristically juvenile than contempt for juvenility." p. 73
"...many young people derive the belief that tragedy is essentially 'truer to life' than comedy. This seems to me wholly unfounded. Each of these forms chooses out of real life just those sorts of events it needs. The raw materials are all around us, mixed anyhow." p. 80
There's also a great section on what healthy day-dreaming looks like. He calls productive exercise of our imagination "normal castle-building," and destructive, all-consuming day-dreaming that keeps us from engaging fully with life "morbid castle-building." Great stuff.
Anyhoo, this is a wonderful and underrated book that I think any thoughtful consumer of media could benefit from reading.
7 - I will have to seriously reevaluate any friendship or romantic interest that does not like this book: a favorite