I love C.S. Lewis. I have read and reread his works more times than I can count. Whenever someone asks me which of his books is my favorite, I point to one that often garners puzzled looks: An Experiment in Criticism.
It’s a brilliant little book that is something of a love letter to the art of reading well. In it, Lewis explores the way our personal practices either open us up to or close us off from the transformative potential of reading. If you haven’t read it, take the thoughts that follow as the strongest encouragement I can give to pick it up and sit with it for a time.
In his experiment, Lewis attempts “to discover how far it might be plausible to define a good book as a book which is read in one way, and a bad book as a book which is read in another.”1
Notice that this experiment assumes that the quality of a book rests in the reader’s hands, and not within the text itself.2
To explore this hypothesis, he attends to the ways we engage with a book and proposes that reading is done in either a literary or unliterary way. The primary distinction between the two is that the unliterary reader uses books for her own purposes where the literary reader actively receives them. Active reception requires that we open ourselves up to what a text can do to us “by being in its totality precisely the thing it is.”3
This means that we allow a text to be itself, and we receive it on its own terms. It means we don’t expect poetry to be prose, or fiction to be fact (though both can be equally true). It means that we refuse to impose our will upon a text and that we allow it to shape us into different kinds of people.
If we can receive a text in this way, we can get out of ourselves and into another. We can come “to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own.”4 While this might seem like mere mental gymnastics, what Lewis has in mind is an actual becoming. It is an acquaintance with and experience of the others (fictional or otherwise) we encounter when we read, not merely the acquisition of knowledge about them and the way they see the world. We experience them from the inside, so to speak. He writes,
It is connaitre not savoir; it is erleben; we become these other selves. Not only nor chiefly in order to see what they are like but in order to see what they see, to occupy, for a while, their seat in the great theatre, to use their spectacles and be made free of whatever insights, joys, terrors, wonders or merriment those spectacles reveal.5
But this is not our normal way of interacting with the world; rather, we “see the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to [ourselves].”6 There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this particularity. But literary reading gives us other lenses to see through, other shoes to walk in, other experiences to learn from.
This is why Lewis suggests that our primary concern while reading should be “with entering fully into the opinions, and therefore also the attitudes, feelings and total experience, of [others].”7 If we do this, we can actually “delight to enter into other men’s beliefs . . . even though we think them untrue. And into their passions, though we think them depraved . . . And also into their imaginations, though they lack all realism of content.”8
Reading in this non-imperialistic, empathetic, and open-hearted way allows us to encounter, appreciate, and receive perspectives that differ from our own. It allows us to enter into them and walk around for a little while, to experience life from that vantage before returning to our own. And we must return to our own perspectives when we close a book, for we remain ourselves even as we become these countless others.
But the perspectives we return to may have changed. They may be larger and more expansive. They may have more room for the other with all her particularity and distinctiveness. For we can be enlarged and transformed through our reading, and the ways we inhabit the world might be forever changed—but only if we are willing to actively receive what the work has to offer, to “Look. Listen. Receive. Get [ourselves] out of the way.”9
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- C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 1.
- Lewis is cautious about calling any book “bad.” For him, making that judgment requires not “that it elicits no good response from ourselves, for that might be our fault. In calling a book bad we are claiming not that it can elicit bad reading, but that it can’t elicit good. This negative proposition can never be certain . . . others may be able to do with it what I can’t.” Lewis, 117.
- Lewis, 16-17.
- Lewis, 137.
- Lewis, 139.
- Lewis, 137.
- Lewis, 85.
- Lewis, 139.
- Lewis, 19.