C.S. Lewis and Digital Books

book head

Would C.S. Lewis have embraced digital books if he had lived to see them? Or, would the Oxford and Cambridge scholar have deemed them an abomination?

Posing questions like this—about how prominent historical figures would have regarded technologies invented after they died—relies on conjecture. In most cases, one can only “assume” the likeliest answer.

A recent essay entitled “The Screen and the Book” sounds like something C.S. Lewis could have written about the encroachment of digital media on the domain formerly commanded by print.

The contention of the author is that:

Books are solid. This is at once a physical description and a metaphysical one, and it is on this metaphysical solidity that we ought to ground our loyalty to the book over and against the allure of the ever-changing screen.

When it comes to the notion of Lewis comparing heavily loaded bookshelves to a text laden hard drive, there is absolutely no question which he would prefer.

As Lewis declared in one essay, “an unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only.” (“On Stories”)

Lewis would without any doubt have despised the way ebooks have been displacing “real” books.

Lewis’ affection for modern and ancient codices enshrining the written word is legendary. In fact, one cannot possibly navigate the internet without repeatedly crashing into this single quotation: “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”

One could fill volumes with Lewis’ comments about books. And that’s not simply because he was an astute literary critic. The simple truth is that C.S. Lewis loved books. A few less familiar quotations follow.

Some Bookish Thoughts Penned by C.S. Lewis

Lewis expressed his affection for devotional literature in a 1930 letter to Arthur Greeves.

All private reading has ceased, except for 20 minutes before bed (if alone) when I drink a cup of cocoa and try to wash the day off with MacDonald’s Diary of an Old Soul.

I shall soon have finished it and must look round for another book. Luckily the world is full of books of that general type: that is another of the beauties of coming, I won’t say, to religion but to an attempt at religion—one finds oneself on the main road with all humanity, and can compare notes with an endless succession of previous travellers. It is emphatically coming home: as Chaucer says “Returneth home from worldly vanitee.”

Books are vital to the preservation of what is good.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. (“On the Reading of Old Books”)

Lewis describes classical education’s focus on the ancients, and the natural affection readers had for poetic works they encountered on their own.

The great authors of the past wrote to entertain the leisure of their adult contemporaries, and a man who cared for literature needed no spur and expected no good conduct marks for sitting down to the food provided for him. Boys at school were taught to read Latin and Greek poetry by the birch, and discovered the English poets as accidentally and naturally as they now discover the local cinema.

Most of my own generation, and many, I hope, of yours, tumbled into literature in that fashion. . . . Shall we be thought immodest if we claim that most of the books we loved from the first were good books and our earliest loves are still unrepented? (“High Brows and Low Brows”)

In the following letter from 1953, Lewis praises existing volumes on the subject of prayer and explains his hope for Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.

I invite your prayers about a work which I now have in hand. I am trying to write a book about private prayers for the use of the laity, especially for those who have been recently converted to the Christian faith and so far are without any sustained and regular habit of prayer.

I tackled the job because I saw many no doubt very beautiful books written on this subject of prayer for the religious but few which instruct tiros and those still babes (so to say) in the Faith. I find many difficulties nor do I definitely know whether God wishes me to complete this task or not.

In his essay “George Orwell,” Lewis relates his strong preference for Animal Farm over 1984. In addition to being prescient, he refers in a creative manner to his appetite for good books.

What puzzles me is the marked preference of the public for 1984 [over Animal Farm]. For it seems to me (apart from its magnificent, and fortunately detachable, Appendix on “Newspeak”) to be merely a flawed, interesting book; but the Farm is a work of genius which may well outlive the particular and (let us hope) temporary conditions that provoked it.

To begin with, it is very much the shorter of the two. This in itself would not, of course, show it to be the better. I am the last person to think so. . . .

My appetite is hearty and when I sit down to read I like a square meal. But in this instance the shorter book seems to do all that the longer one does; and more. The longer book does not justify its greater length. There is dead wood in it.

In 1928 Lewis mentioned a project that would have made fascinating reading if he had pursued it. He describes how an engaging volume can capture our attention in such a way that it leads us on a continuing quest of literary exploration.

My studies in the XVIth century—you will remember my idea of a book about Erasmus—have carried me much further back than I anticipated. Indeed it is the curse and the fascination of literary history that there are no real beginnings.

Take what point you will for the start of some new chapter in the mind and imaginations of man, and you will invariably find that it has always begun a bit earlier; or rather, it branches so imperceptibly out of something else that you are forced to go back to the something else. The only satisfactory opening for any study is the first chapter of Genesis.

Did Lewis Write the Following?

I’ll tell you the answer up front. No, he didn’t. But to my ear it sounds like it could easily have come from his lips.

In actuality, it is the closing statement of the essay referred to above. And, since it so clearly echoes the sentiments of C.S. Lewis, I deemed it fitting to close with it.

If you want to destroy a child’s love for learning, get rid of books. Serve him Plato from a PDF and E.B. White from an e-reader. Banish from his formative years any experience of objects that incarnate immaterial thought.

Remove the impractical, antiquated book in all its stubborn solidity, and encourage the child to dive into the flux wherein everything could be otherwise.

If we do this absolutely, if we ensure that not even the rumor of books reaches our rising generation, we will create a new man for the digital age: a puddle of disconnected thoughts pretending to have a head.

15 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis and Digital Books

  1. Such an interesting question! I agree with you that Lewis probably would have preferred print books. I think many readers have come around to some of the advantages of ebooks though–the ease of travelling with many books, the ability to search for content in a book, the accessibility for readers who need large print or other modifications. I think he would have still loved print books and stuffed bookshelves. Since he was an academic, though, I think he’d have to admit that the ability to instantly search a whole book for a single word or specific quote would be an immense time saver!

    1. You’re right about the advantages of the digital text for searches, study, and the like. I have a huge physical library, but I now purchase almost all of my new additions for Kindle. The new features for sharing your books with family make it even more appealing.

      My library includes physical copies of virtually everything Lewis wrote… and my digital collection includes almost everything he wrote that has been digitized.

      Actually, I’m quite comfortable reading from both media. Probably because I’m on the “cusp” of the digital revolution. I’m older, of course, but was an early convert to the very first PCs.

  2. bookseyeread

    One of my favorite posts. The comment, “an unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only.” (“On Stories”) spoke to me. A good book is meant to be read again and again. So glad to see this is one more area of agreement I have with Mr. Lewis.

    1. I do have a few books I’ve enjoyed rereading, and a stack of them that I hope to reread when I have more leisure time. At the same time, there are so many new books that cry out to be read. Oh, the dilemma!

    1. It’s from the same First Things article that is linked above. Marc Barnes’ bio note with the article describes him as “a graduate student in philosophy at The Franciscan University of Steubenville.”

  3. Hi Rob,

    Nothing replaces real books. I am just glad that e-books are getting people to read who did not before. At least it is a start.

    Thanks for sharing,


    1. Yes, reading is the important thing.

      As for nothing replacing “real” books, that’s true for most of us who are Digital Immigrants. It’s probably the reverse for Digital Natives… some of them, I suspect, view us as handicapped by our preference for the physical medium.

  4. I am a ‘both and’ type of bookacholic: still buying actual books (easier to justify cost by sharing them with someone else after reading) but also have 400+ books on my kindle white (which is my fav as it makes the fonts so easy to see & read.) Many favorite authors are out of print, so scouring used books stores is still a very favorite past time – who knows what treasures will be found? Searching digitally is not quite the same (altho many thanks to the ‘community of volunteers’ who have digitally formatted so many of the old classics.) Another challenge with the digital medium is that you can’t get an author to sign his/her book – I just went to a Science Fiction con & had only digital copies from one of the guests of honor (but had my groupie hardback stack for another author to sign!) Blessings as we navigate this digital age! Virginia :)

    1. Virginia, you and I have much in common. Besides having a foot in each camp, we both loved used bookstores. I always enjoy in the States, but they were so much richer and more mesmerizing in Britain!

      I hadn’t thought about autographs, since I have rarely met any of the authors I read. However, at a conference like that (I like scifi as well) I would much prefer having real copies for them to autograph.

  5. Thanks for this post Rob. I actually was just searching all of Lewis’ works for a particular book (to see if he commented on it). I did that by combing through PDFs and ePubs. What would Lewis say? He’d probably say, “stop studying me and go do something useful.”
    However, if you and I were talking about digital books and he overheard, he might say, “Yes, we must always keep books at our fingertips.” For “digital” meant just that, the fingers. As in Scott “Fortunes of Nigel”, “For taking the ten horns o’ the beast, ye may easily estimate by your digitals.”

    1. Yes, Lewis would likely say that!

      Glad you enjoyed the post, and congratulations on the Award for Excellence in Teaching you just received from the University of Prince Edward Island.

      It’s clear from your fine blog that you are a talented and dedicated professor!

  6. Pingback: Sharing the Blessings of Books « Mere Inkling Press

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