Lewis on the Shelf Life

In An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis, a great writer (because a great reader) mused about different types of readers. He notes three differences between the “majority” and the “few”. Although he doesn’t state it explicitly at first, he clearly believes the “few” are better readers:

A. “the majority never read anything twice. The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers ‘I’ve read it already’ to be a conclusive argument against reading a work … Those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life,” (2)

B. “the majority, though they are sometimes frequent readers, do not set much store by reading. They turn to it as a last resource … But literary people are always looking for leisure and silence in which to read and do so with their whole attention. When they are denied such attentive and undisturbed reading even for a few days they feel impoverished,” (2-3).

C. “the first reading of some literary work is often, to the literary, an experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison … But there is no sign of anything like this among the other sort of readers. When they have finished the story or the novel, nothing much, or nothing at all, seems to have happened to them,” (3).

D. “Finally, and as a natural result of their different behaviour in reading, what they have read is constantly and prominently present to the mind of the few, but not to that of the many. The former mouth over their favourite lines and stanzas in solitude. Scenes and characters from books provide them with a sort of iconography by which they interpret or sum up their own experience. They talk to one another about books, often and at length. The latter seldom think or talk of their reading,” (3).

However gnostic, part of this blog’s excuse for existing is to revel in good words and good books, to “mouth [type] over … favourite lines and stanzas.”

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