If books should not be judged by their covers, how much more true is it that we should avoid judging people by their initial appearance?
We don’t want others to be hasty in determining who we are, right? We need to take some time to get to know people before coming to “conclusions” about what they are like.
Yet we still tend to look at someone and – right away – assess whether they are trustworthy or not. I confess it is sometimes challenging for me to maintain an open mind. For example, teardrop tattoos (especially when accompanied by neck ink that combines letters and numbers), make me nervous.
First impressions are usually by their very nature superficial. Which means they often prove to be wrong. That’s true about people . . . and books.
Lewis scholar Dale Nelson recently sent me an interesting review of the book The Inklings, written by Humphrey Carpenter in 1978. The fascinating thing about the piece was that it was written by Lord David Cecil (1902-1986), who was himself an Inkling.
One of the things which drew my attention was his physical description of several of the members, especially C.S. Lewis. Without citing the maxim, he declares how misleading first impressions may be.
[Charles] Williams was the most obviously odd. Very tall, and indisputably ugly with a high forehead and with gleaming spectacles, he yet diffused a curious charm that came from an enthusiastic warmth of spirit united to a comic lack of inhibition. . . .
Lewis at first sight appeared less unusual; stocky, red-faced, loud-voiced, he might indeed have been taken for an innkeeper or even a butcher.
Such a mistake would not have displeased him, he liked to think of himself as representing the common man, in contrast to the sophisticated intellectual.
These observations were interesting, but there was something far more thought-provoking in the (excellent, by the way) review. More about that in a moment. First let’s return for a moment to the issue of book covers.
What about the Cover of the Book You are Writing?
I discussed covers, and Lewis’ thoughts thereon, in this post.
It’s unsurprising that with all of their many reprintings, the writings of C.S. Lewis have been published with a wide range of covers. Some of this can be attributed to the artistic fads of the decade in which particular editions saw print. More important, I believe, are the arbitrary tastes of publishers.
When it comes to self-publishing, authors are in complete control over the image that graces their literary creations. While I make no pretense of being an artist, I must confess at being shocked by the shoddy quality of many such works. Surely they are aware that the very best of writing can be marred by dreadful packaging. By the same token, even weak literature has received wider dissemination than it merited, due to stunning or alluring graphics.
The internet is filled with posts on this subject. These are representative:
The reality is that every person who steps into a book shop or browses books online is judging books by their cover, even if only subconsciously. I’m not saying that the judgment is always correct. Some books have amazing covers but are comprised of some pretty bad writing. I’d guess that many more amazing books are hiding behind bad cover art. The challenge is to get readers to pick up your book in the first place. That’s where the artwork comes in.
Another writer contends that potential readers do consider a host of matters. In “Why ‘Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover’ is Bad Advice,” the writer nevertheless admits it is the single most important element in winning an audience (short of a celebrity endorsement).
Readers are going to keep on reading and judging based on a whole host of criteria. The cover is just one of the many factors that are taken into account. Like other aspects of a book, it holds valuable information about the story kept inside.
Disregarding it is bad advice. Instead, why not try judging a book by its cover? Maybe next time you peruse the shelves of your neighborhood bookstore or scroll through the numerous titles listed online, you can select books purely based on the cover.
You never know, that could tell you everything you need to give that book a chance.
Covers are not the only factor in enhancing your book’s reception. Consider as well the nature of the paper in printed copies, as I discussed in “The Ugliest Book,” about a Mayan codex.
Now, back to the book reviewer.
David Cecil’s Thoughts on His Own Identity as an Inkling
David Cecil was an accomplished man, and a true Oxford Inkling. The curious aspect is how, as the son of a marquess (bearing a courtesy title), socializing with a different caste, so to speak, would bond so well with the rest of the Inklings. Fortunately, Cecil briefly explains why he valued the fellowship in this book review.
Usually one of them would read aloud a piece from some book he was writing. . . . The meetings were also occasionally attended by persons who did not share The Inklings’ distinctive point of view but who liked spending an evening in their company.
I myself was one of these; I found such evenings enjoyable and stimulating; and all the more because the spirit of The Inklings was in piquant contrast to those of the Oxford circles in which I spent most of my time.
A final gift to those who treasure Lewis and his companions comes in Cecil’s incisive understanding of their unifying bond.
The qualities . . . that gave The Inklings their distinctive personality were not primarily their opinion; rather it was a feeling for literature, which united, in an unusual way, scholarship and imagination.
Their standard of learning was very high. To study a book in translation or without a proper knowledge of its historic background would have been to them unthinkable; they were academic in the best sense of the word.
But – and this is what made them different from most academics – they also read imaginatively. The great books of the past were to them living in the same way as the work of a contemporary. . . .
Simply they read their books in the spirit in which they were written. And they could communicate their sense of this spirit to their hearers so that, for these also, these great books sprang to fresh, full life.
This was a unique achievement in the Oxford of their time.
It appears the Inklings would be among the last to judge a book, or a person, by their cover.
If we were to ask C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the rest of the Inklings for insights about a New Year, what wisdom might they share?
Read on. Mere Inkling answers that question with a few select quotations from their writings. We also include comments from several other writers associated, in spirit, with the Oxford Inklings.
While some of the pithiest of the quotations below are well represented at quotation websites, your humble host has secured the less familiar quotations through the diligent search of obscure manuscripts.
From a holiday letter to a friend.
“There is small chance of this reaching you tomorrow Jan. 1 to wish you a Happy New Year. I hope you have plenty of food in store! It is my birthday on Jan. 3rd, and I look like spending it in the isolation of a house turned igloo; but the companionship of several bottles of what has turned out a most excellent burgundy (since I helped to select it in its infancy) will no doubt mitigate that: Clos de Tart 1949, just at its top. With that hobbit-like note I will close, wishing you and your wife and children all blessings in 1962.”
As the world conflict raged on, Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher who was serving in the Royal Air Force. “This empty year is fading into a dull grey mournful darkness: so slow-footed and yet so swift and evanescent. What of the new year and the spring? I wonder.”
A scholar in his own right, Christopher devoted much of his life to editing his father’s published and unpublished works. In The End of the Third Age, he reminds us that sometimes the jobs on which we embark end up being far more involved than we anticipated. “With this book, my account of the writing of The Lord of the Rings is completed. I regret that I did not manage to keep it even within the compass of three fat volumes.
“What wonderful adventures we shall have, now that we are all in it together.”
“You are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream.”
“Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different.”
“I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and help others to do the same.”
“If you live for the next world, you get this one in the deal; but if you live only for this world, you lose them both.”
“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”
“I think that if God forgives us we must forgive ourselves. Otherwise, it is almost like setting up ourselves as a higher tribunal than Him.”
“I think in order to move forward into the future, you need to know where you’ve been.”
“Play and pray; but on the whole do not pray when you are playing and do not play when you are praying.”
“. . . the poet, while creating anew, is likely to be in a sense restoring something old.”
In a short story entitled “The Devastated Area,” Barfield, a veteran of WWI, described the way a soldier can view an uncertain future. “Armistice day; the last shot; and the hushed, doubtful little group in the dug-out at 11 o’clock. He is sitting there in uniform, willing for the first time in three years to let his thoughts run on into the future. But they will go back to the past instead . . .”
In his history of English hymnody, Fox praises his nation’s people and offers timely advice regarding musical accompaniment. “It takes no long argument to prove that Hymn Singing is a national institution in Great Britain. It is so rather in the same way as cricket. . . . The singing is usually accompanied on an organ, or if there is no organ, then on a piano. The harmonium, though sometimes used for the purpose, cannot be recommended, and is falling into disuse.”
Jack A.W. Bennett:
In The Humane Medievalist, Bennett praises his friend and fellow Inkling, C.S. Lewis. Coincidentally, this essay was his own inaugural lecture as he assumed the Cambridge chair which had been created for Lewis himself. “C.S. Lewis died a year ago today, and the year has deepened not diminished our sense of loss. Those of us who had the good fortune to call him master must feel as the prentice Hoccleve felt about Chaucer: ‘Fain he would me have taught, But I was dull, and learned little or naught.’”
Lord David Cecil:
He begins his biography of Lord Melbourne with a curious sentence suggesting that even we who have lived the most average of lives, may still have great things ahead of us. “William Lamb, second son of the first Viscount Melbourne, had arrived at the age of forty-seven without achieving anything of significance in the world.”
Discussing the Tragedies written by Shakespeare, Dyson reminds us to recognize potential blessings in the coming year’s challenges. “Our awareness both of ourselves and of the world at large is intensified by confrontation with an unexpected or serious or painful situation. Our wits and imaginations alike grow more acute under difficulties.”
Referring to Chaucer’s portrayal of the Knight, Coghill describes an ongoing goal for those who will to live nobly. “There is a fundamental answer to those who want to think the Knight’s moral nature . . . was too good to be true, and so can be no better than a romantic illusion. People who think thus can never have thought about Christianity at all; that we can live up to the moral demands that it makes on us, and that at any moment we may fall into the pit that opens beneath us, does not lessen the love we are taught . . . to have, and to attempt. Christianity plainly tells us to be perfect, impossible as it seems, impossible as it proves; but this does not make that demand less real, or even less realistic . . . Coming to the aid of human imperfection, there is grace.”
A Special Bonus for Mere Inkling Readers as the Year Ends
And a few additional thoughts from writers with connections to our favorite Inklings.
“A man’s real belief is that which he lives by. What a man believes is the thing he does, not the thing he thinks.”
A reminder to trust God for his daily provision. “It is not the cares of today, but the cares of tomorrow, that weigh a man down. For the needs of today we have corresponding strength given. For the morrow we are told to trust. It is not ours yet. It is when tomorrow’s burden is added to the burden of today that the weight is more than a man can bear.”
“Past tears are present strength.”
“Paradoxical as it may seem, to believe in youth is to look backward; to look forward we must believe in age.”
“When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”
“Being a fool for God was not merely alright but liberating.”
“We do not need a world in which there is nothing to be afraid of . . . Nor can we have such a world, for all our strivings; no matter pleasant and safe we make the journey, the end of it is death. What we do need is to remember that we have been redeemed from death and the fear of death, and at a rather high price too.”
“I am beginning to realize that every point in one’s life at which one loses everything is far more a beginning than an end, for one has lost merely the past, and one has yet to gain the future, and eternity itself.”
And, encouragement for those among us who are writers: “Don’t forget, the rejection by a publisher of a book that you’ve written is not a failure.”
One Final Bit of Wisdom for the New Year
The internet offers lots of valuable information, accessible with the click of a key. Unfortunately, a significant amount of it is unsubstantiated, and downright false. This includes the quotations attributed to various people.
Some largescale quotation “aggregators” consider attribution on other unvalidated sites sufficient justification for loading the questionable citations to their own pages. For example, check out the quotations attributed online to Lord David Cecil. Or, better yet, don’t.
During my research for this post I discovered many of them – or, at least those most beneficial to reflective minds – actually come from the pen of Richard Cecil (1748-1810), an Anglican priest. Here is a grand example of misattribution, particularly appealing to a pastor such as myself: “It requires as much reflection and wisdom to know what is not to be put into a sermon, as what is.”
We’ll close now with an apocryphal C.S. Lewis quote. Despite scores of sites attributing the following thought to Lewis, no one can find it anywhere in his work. It is, however, consistent with his wisdom, and leaves us with an optimistic truth as 2021 draws to a close.
“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”
Amen. Lord, grant all those who read these words of wisdom, both now and during years to come, a blessed New Year.
Each writer brings a unique balance of talents to the task before them. Some excel at the initial writings. Others are especially talented at sharpening their work after the first draft has been created.
Understanding where we fit on that spectrum of author or editor, can be very empowering. Knowing our strengths and non-strengths is a major step in becoming a better writer.
Andy Le Peau worked for four decades at InterVarsity Press. His excellent blog, Andy Unedited, explores “books, life, and writing.” Five years ago he penned a short post that I still find extremely enlightening.
Authors tend to come up with new ideas and push them forward. They like to move into literary territories not explored before. Creating something new is like a shot of caffeine to their systems.
Good editors see how to improve a book, make it read better, clearer. They don’t try to shape the book in their own image. Rather they see the good that is already there and find ways to make it even more effective, better organized, clearer.
Good writers are usually pretty decent editors. Not expert, but adequate enough to recognize ways in which their own work can be improved. That’s why we call the “first draft” a first draft.
Now, if you consider your initial draft a finished product, you are definitely not a settler!
C.S. Lewis was a gifted writer. He also knew a great deal about editing, as I’ve discussed here in the past. I’ve even described his astonishment with the practices of some editors.
Lewis was quite open to revising his own work, even after it was published. In 1959, he wrote to one of his publishers, “Yes, there is one chapter of Miracles that needs revision. The result of the revision will, I think, make it shorter rather than longer. I’ll get onto this job as soon as I can.”
My Perspective on the Writing Process
While I embrace the pioneer or settler symbolism, I expand the analogy by thinking about my own writing process. I tend to think of it in three categories, with
Researching – Writing – Editing
To this process, if we desire to actually share our work, should be added at its end, “Submitting/Publishing.” Submitting refers to presenting it for potential publication in various media. By publishing, I refer to skipping the proverbial middle person, and posting your work online or using one of the self-publishing options readily available today.
In my personal context, I regard researching as a semi-independent stage of the writing process.
This may be due to the fact I focus on nonfiction. (Fiction writers can devote meager attention to it, and get away with it—not that they should ever ignore it.)
There are two additional reasons researching earns its own place in my writing process. First, because it is in my innate nature to be thorough and accurate. Second, I simply love the process. I know I’m in the minority.
Most writers prefer to get on with the task as soon as possible. I, however, am enslaved by my inherent curiosity to learn as much as possible about the undertaking as I can, before embarking on the actual writing. (And, yes, I recognize this may be exaggerated by my mortal tendency to procrastinate.)
To maintain the original analogy, in the spirit of Leif Erikson, I think of it this way:
Explorer – Pioneer – Settler
This works well for me, and I hope this post offers some insight and encouragement to you, as well.
You can write a masterpiece, only to have it ruined by an inattentive publisher.
It would be bad enough if they filled your retelling of Romeo and Juliet with typos, what if you had just penned the ultimate authority on grammar, or perhaps, spelling?
Last month, British lexicographer Susie Dent released Word Perfect, a “brilliant linguistic almanac.” Unfortunately, the wrong (pre-proofed) version was published, and it was anything but “perfect.”
Although thoroughly embarrassed, Dent was gracious in regard to the error. “To be fair to my publishers, Covid has caused an extraordinary rush on pushing books through the production process, and in many ways it has been a laudable achievement getting anything published at all.”
Many of Mere Inkling’s readers are also writers. Some are fortunate enough to have professional publishers. Dent reminds us that we should not take them for granted, despite their occasional shortcomings.
C.S. Lewis was, of course, quite a prolific writer. This led to his interaction with a variety of different editors. Lewis freely expressed appreciation for a job well done, as I noted in his praise of a French translation of his work.
Lewis was also quite comfortable in discussing precisely how his writings should appear in print. In another post, I described his conversation with a publisher about the presentation of a Shakespearean quotation.
Similarly, Lewis possessed an awareness of the importance of the covers chosen for his books. And he lamented the quality of the paper dictated by wartime rationing.
Mere Inkling has included many other references to publishers in the past, although I am still searching for an ancient roman reference to Cave Scribae.*
Publishers and editors are often the targets of disaffected writers. If you have never seen Mark Twain’s delightful sketches on the subject, don’t shut down your computer before checking my post on the subject.
It would be good to pray that our personal attitudes towards publishers reflect those of C.S. Lewis and Susie Dent rather than Samuel Clemens, since Twain once summarized his attitude in this tragic manner:
If ever a publisher gets a non-terminable contract with an author, that author can never buy his freedom from that slavery on any terms. A publisher is by nature so low and vile that he—that he—well from the bottom of my heart I wish all publishers were in hell.
* Cave Scribae translates to “Beware of the Scribes.” It’s a reference to the ancient practice of publishers having scribes reproduce individual copies of a new work for sale or distribution. Since each copy was technically “unique,” one can only guess how many errors must have slipped surreptitiously into the duplicates.
As for the illustration at the top of this column, there are countless examples of similar mistakes online. They are particularly alarming when they come from “educational” institutions. This one, from Oregon State University, offers a variation of the error illustrated above: “Many people know there learning style…”
Consider yourself blessed if you’re not a fontaholic. The affliction leads to clogged font directories on your computer, and an unavoidable prejudice toward either serif or sans serif fonts.
People who are intrigued by typography know exactly what I’m talking about. At least two or three times a year they will inextricably find themselves on some font website (there are scores of them) without consciously knowing how they got there or there or there.*
I’ve written about fontaholicism in the past. Unfortunately, despite my advocacy, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has yet to classify the malady as a recognized illness. That said, the American Psychiatric Association does sound a bit obsessive compulsive in terms of their font guidance for annual meeting posters.
If any or all of the work in this poster was prepared with commercial support, a statement “Supported by funding from [name of company]” must be noted in the lower left corner of the poster in Arial 72 point font, with no bold, italics, special colors, or other enhancement of the company name, product, or any other portions of the statement.
One wonders what sort of reaction a person would get from the APA if they used Times Roman or Comic Sans by mistake.
C.S. Lewis & Fonts
It should be acknowledged up front that C.S. Lewis was not obsessed with fonts. However, he was wise enough to recognize their significant role in communication. Good fonts could be transparent, while problematic fonts blurred the message. He highlighted one of the most significant aspects of a font’s usage—size—in a 1957 letter. He told a fellow Brit, “you’d be much wiser to get my books in the American edition as these now have larger print and better paper than our own.”
A year earlier he had discussed a related issue with his publisher. There was a problem with a Shakespeare quotation intended for the title page of Till We Have Faces.
The quotation would, I agree, look better on a page to itself, but (what is more important) I am very strongly opposed to the idea of dividing it. I agree that it ‘looks wrong as it is’ but I think it will look equally with any division whatever. I do not see why it need be printed ‘absurdly small’ to fit in as one line . . .
Now a line of that length on a page to itself would I believe, look ugly if it came anywhere near the middle of a page–because it would then seem to divide the page into two halves. But would it not look quite nice if put near the top? It would then have the properties of a frieze or dado with plain wall under it.
And we may perfectly well omit the word ‘Shakespeare’ if we think that makes a better design. But I’d prefer even a bad design to a division of the verse.
Free Books about Fonts
You can find a number of interesting books about fonts at some of the wonderful internet libraries such as Project Gutenberg. During recent historical research about Reformation-era artists, I discovered a book written by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528). Since his fame is derived from his portraits of prominent people, I was surprised he had written a guide for properly shaping letters, based on geometric principles. The introduction provides a fascinating portrait of sixteenth century artistry in northern Europe.
In our Germany . . . are to be found at the present day many young men of a happy talent for the Art Pictorial, who without any artistic training whatever, but taught only by their daily exercise of it, have run riot like an unpruned tree, so that unhesitatingly and without compunction they turn out their works, purely according to their own judgment.
But when great and ingenious artists behold their so inept performances, not undeservedly do they ridicule the blindness of such men; since sane judgment abhors nothing so much as a picture perpetrated with no technical knowledge, although with plenty of care and diligence.
Now the sole reason why painters of this sort are not aware of their own error is that they have not learnt Geometry, without which no one can either be or become an absolute artist; but the blame for this should be laid upon their masters, who themselves are ignorant of this art.
Since this is in very truth the foundation of the whole graphic art, it seems to me a good thing to set down for studious beginners a few rudiments, in which I might, as it were, furnish them with a handle for using the compass and the rule, and thence, by seeing Truth itself before their eyes, they might become not only zealous of the arts, but even arrive at a great and true understanding of them.
Dürer’s book sparked my curiosity, and a very quick subsequent search hinted at the wealth of typographical information online. For example, you can read about The Typography of Advertisements, circa 1911. There you will be warned that bolder is not always better.
“But,” some one says, “the heavier and bolder type-faces furnish a greater contrast to the white of the paper, and therefore should be easier to read.”
It is true that a greater contrast of color is furnished in the use of the bolder type-faces, but to force these greater contrasts on the eye is to literally club it into reading the text, whether or no. Are the salesman’s statements of better selling value because they are shouted loudly in direct contrast to the quiet of the office?
There may be, and undoubtedly are, some on whom this force is necessary, but to those who are sufficiently educated and intelligent to be reached through the appeal of an advertisement, the quiet dignity of the salesman’s statements made in well-modulated tones will be more attractive.
Gaze back even farther, to what was considered Early Typography in 1872. There you will discover a medieval religious order devoted to worship and manuscripts.
Reference has more than once been made to the impulse given to learning at the end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries. This movement was helped forward by no one in Holland and Germany more than by Gerhard Groote, or Magnus, of Deventer, (b. 1326, d. 1370), who after studying theology at Paris, became a canon of Utrecht and Aix-la-Chapelle, and founded the Order of the Brethren and Clerks of the Common Life, generally known as the “Gemeiineslebens,” or “Frères de la Vie Commune . . .”
It was divided into the literary Brethren or Clerks, and the unlearned Brethren, who lived in different houses, but in bonds of the greatest friendship. The Clerks devoted themselves to transcribing books, the cultivation of polite learning, and the instruction of youth; and they erected schools wherever they went. The Brethren laboured with their hands, and pursued various mechanic trades. Neither were under the restraint of religious vows; but still they ate at a common table, and had a general community of goods.
Fonts, fonts, fonts. As I said above, you are fortunate if they don’t draw you too deeply into their orbit. However, if you recognize you too are a fontaholic, take comfort in the knowledge that you are not alone.
* And here’s another font site I had never seen before writing this post. It has a delightful name, Font Squirrel. Once I finish writing this piece, you can guess where I will be spending some of my web surfing research time.
The Elefonts cartoon at the top of the page is a creation of talented Canadian John Atkinson, and is used with permission.
Do you suppose that if we gathered together all of the volumes written by the Inklings, along with all of the books and articles written about these gifted authors, we could fill a library? I am uncertain, but I think the effort would prove a quite enjoyable undertaking.
Libraries have always been important to Christians. The preservation of documents during the so-called “dark ages” was one of the major duties assumed by monasteries. It’s no accident the oldest continuously operating library is found in a monastery. The library at Saint Catherine Monastery contains “3,300 manuscripts, and some 8,000 early printed books, together with 5,000 new books.”
When Egeria visited the Sinai in 383-384, she wrote approvingly of the way the monks read to her the scriptural accounts concerning the various events that had taken place there. Thus we can speak of manuscripts at Sinai in the fourth century.
It is written of Saint John Climacus that, while living as a hermit, he spent much time in prayer and in the copying of books. This is evidence of manuscript production at Sinai in the sixth century. The library at the Holy Monastery of Sinai is thus the inheritor of texts and of traditions that date to the earliest years of a monastic presence in the Sinai.
It comes as no surprise that libraries played a prominent role in the life of C.S. Lewis. The three volumes of his letters include well over a hundred references to them. I offer just a small sampling to illustrate.
In 1914, Jack (at boarding school in England) wrote his father about some renovation work being done in their Northern Ireland home. He refers to the existence of two libraries. The second was the one the boys, Jack and his brother Warnie, shared.
I hope that by the time this letter reaches you, the study wall will have been replaced and the stately hall of Leeborough will smile upon guest and inhabitant with its pristine splendour and hospitality. Of course in restoring the ‘main library’ you are careful to alter the appearance of the room as little as possible. It would be a pity if I came home to a strange house. In the meantime I hope that the small library has been allowed to remain untouched?
The next year he wrote to his father, apparently in response to an accounting of the collection in the “small library.” One wonders how his father responded to his comment about the octavo book format. After all, he was himself an educated man, a solicitor. But then, most of the legal publications with which he was acquainted would have published in such a format. [See the video* below for an explanation of book sizes.]
The state of our library at Leeborough must be perfectly appalling: how such a collection of ignorances and carelessnesses could have got together on the shelves of our room passes my comprehension. As well, where is the beautiful quarto edition? What is a quarto? I don’t believe you have the vaguest idea, and should not be surprised if the edition in question is merely an 8vo., (no, that doesn’t mean ‘in eight volumes,’ though I too thought so once.)
Meanwhile, Lewis spent considerable time in the library of his school, Malvern College. The library was not only a valued place of learning and reflection. It also served as a refuge from the bullying that was a daily reality at the boarding school. (As we know, the tormenting of vulnerable students is not restricted to schools that double as temporary homes; it seems to be endemic to educational settings for children and adolescents.)
[In a letter to his father, Lewis wrote:] The worst part of the summer term is the fact that we have to keep out of doors nearly all our time; but here one notices the great advantage of being in the Upper School, and therefore allowed to go into the Grundy Library at all hours of the day—it proves a great refuge when the ‘house’ is out of bounds.
In 1915 he chided his close friend, Arthur Greeves, about treating businesses like libraries. I offer an extended passage since it offers a rare insight into Lewis’ musical interests.
Odeon records are the most fascinating and delusive bait on the Gramaphone market. Cheap, classical, performed by good artistes, they present a jolly attractive list: but they wear out in a month.
Of course there are exceptions, and I can play you some selections from Lohengrin which I have on that make, and which have worn well. On the whole however, I wouldn’t advise anyone to get Odeon records, as a short-lived record is one of the most disappointing of things.
I foresee, by the way, that your way of getting records is like Jane McNeil’s way of getting books—that is you use a shop like a free library: whenever a record is worn out, back it goes to the shop, and you have a new one in its place.
The same year, in another letter to the same friend, Lewis displays a bit of prejudice in exactly what sort of volume belongs in a library. “Your little edition [of Faerie Queene] is very nice, but rather too small, and not enough of a library-looking book.” In the same context he later bemoans paying to have a volume professionally bound.
Never, never get a book bound. You will gather from this that ‘Tristan’ has arrived and is a complete and absolute failure. When I told them to bind it in brown leather, with corner pieces etc., I imagined that it would look something like Kelsie’s Dickens . . . Well as a matter of fact, though in a sense they have done what I told them, yet the total effect, instead of being booky and library like, is somehow exactly like a bank book or a ledger.
The following year he informs Greeves about his current reading. Due to his unhappiness at Malvern, his father had transferred him to be tutored by William Kirkpatrick. Lewis was fifteen when he moved to Gaston. His two and a half years there were intellectually stimulating, but spiritually deadening.
Talking of books—you might ask, when do I talk of anything else—I have read and finished ‘The Green Knight,’ which is absolutely top-hole: in fact the only fault I have to find with it is that it is too short—in itself a compliment. . . .
Since finishing it I have started—don’t be surprised—‘Rob Roy,’ which I suppose you have read long ago. I really don’t know how I came to open it: I was just looking for a book in the horribly scanty library of Gastons, and this caught my eye. I must admit that it was a very lucky choice, as I am now revelling in it.
Next it was off to University College at Oxford, where Lewis celebrated an amazing library. Once again, these letters were written to Greeves.
The book shops here are rather adorable, and also our college library. Still better is the Library of the Union Society (a club everyone belongs to) where I spent this morning turning over one book after another and enjoying myself hugely.
13 May 1917 So about 11.30 we arrived back at college and I am come straight thence to the Union. ‘The Union’ is a club to which nearly everyone in the varsity belongs. It has a writing room of strictest silence, where I am scribbling this, and an admirable library where I have already passed many happy hours and hope to pass many more. Oh, Galahad,⁑ you simply must come up after the war.
Lewis not only pursued focused research in the library at his college. He also explored.
I have also been spending more time than usual in the College Library, dipping here and there. Did I tell you that there was a queer little volume in Latin by Cornelius Agrippa⁂ the great magician . . ?
Unfortunately the print is so execrable and the worms have done their work so well that I cannot make much of it: but I love to have it in my hands, and think of all the wizards who have centred their hopes on it—perhaps on this very copy, for it is some 300 years old.
In 1919, Lewis visited the historic Dr. Steevens’ Hospital in Dublin. He described the memorable visit to Greeves.
We had quite a pleasant day in Dublin. I liked Warnie’s friend, who is house-surgeon in Steeven’s hospital where he has a very pleasing little set of rooms. Have you ever been in Steeven’s? There is a fine little library—despite some shocking portraits—containing some letters of Swift’s. This letter begins to read like a guide book, so I will pass on.
In 1924, Lewis’ father apparently inquired into the amount of money he was spending on books. That is a quite natural question from a parent supporting a graduate student. Jack explained:
The book bill was naturally increased by my turning to a new subject. I try to use the libraries as much as possible: but when one is reading for a particular exam there are over a hundred other people taking the same books out of the libraries–and of course there are some things one must have at command. My expenditure on books will be less in future.
I’m confident Lewis kept his word, and cut back on his book purchases in 1925. However, true bibliophiles will ultimately find a way, even when it’s a choice between books and food. Lewis continued to build an impressive personal library in the years that followed.
A Final Thought about Our Personal Libraries
Wouldn’t you enjoy only a book that came from the personal library of someone you admire? I certainly would. C.S. Lewis did, as well. In 1953 Lewis received a copy of In Brief Authority from his fellow Inkling, Roger Lancelyn Green.
My dear Roger Oh angel! What a lovely present, and all the more valuable for being the copy from that enchanted place your own library. I re-read it at once. It is perhaps the most complete of his books: as funny, or very nearly as funny, as Vice Versa but with a beauty which V.V. did not attempt. The ogre is somehow a very real character. Very, very many thanks.
The Wade Center at Wheaton College owns almost 400 books from C.S. Lewis’ personal library. Some are undergoing conservation treatment, but the others are available to visitors. However, “requests to view books from the Author Libraries should be placed at least 24-hours in advance.”
The essays collected in God in the Dock include a peculiar little piece, entitled “Scraps.” The article, which was originally published in 1945, describes four brief scenes. The first describes the nature of our heavenly library.
“Yes,” my friend said. “I don’t see why there shouldn’t be books in Heaven. But you will find that your library in Heaven contains only some of the books you had on earth.” “Which?” I asked. “The ones you gave away or lent.” “I hope the lent ones won’t still have all the borrowers’ dirty thumb marks,” said I. “Oh yes they will,” said he. “But just as the wounds of the martyrs will have turned into beauties, so you will find that the thumb-marks have turned into beautiful illuminated capitals or exquisite marginal woodcuts.”
Reading these words renewed my enthusiasm for lending out my books. As you know, sharing one’s library is much like the biblical injunction about extending aid: “and if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? . . . do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return . . .” (Luke 6:34-35)
C.S. Lewis employs this same illustration in a 1947 letter to one of his correspondents. The context for his remark is how deeply the woman misses the house from which she had recently moved. I’m no philosopher, but Lewis’ argument for how the essential essence of a thing can last, reminds me of Plato’s conception of forms.
I think that about Houses the answer is this. Nothing rises again which has not died. The natural and possessive love for a house if it has been crucified, if it has become disinterested, if it has submitted to sacrifice, will rise again: i.e. the love for a house you were willing to give up will rise again.
The willful, grasping love will not—or only rise as a horror. About the house itself, if the love rises, then all that is necessary to bless it will, I believe, be there. It may not be very like what you would now call ‘a house:’ but you’ll see then that it was what you really meant by the house.
But the whole point is that you can keep forever only what you give up: beginning with the thing it is hardest to give up—one’s self. What you grab you lose: what you offer freely and patiently to God or your neighbour, you will have. (Your heavenly library will contain only the books you have given or lent! And the dirty thumb marks on the latter will have turned into beautiful marginal decorations—I’m joking of course, but to illustrate a serious principle.)
A love of libraries is something shared by most of us “readers.” We can only imagine with joyous anticipation the collection of biographies and stories of adventures, sacrifice, tribulation, rescue, and resurrection that await us in the New Jerusalem. And we’ve already savored a foretaste of that banquet, since the Bible itself is a library in its own right.
* This short video explains different sizes for books. For a comprehensive listing of the options, see this chart at AbeBooks.
⁑ Galahad was C.S. Lewis’ nickname for his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves. It was inspired by Greeves’ “idealistic turn of mind.” (Into the Wardrobe: C.S. Lewis and the Narnia Chronicles)
⁂ Henricus Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) was a brilliant German who excelled in a number of fields. He served as a soldier, physician and lawyer. He even became a Professor of Theology at the University of Dôle for a time, and later lectured on theology at the University of Turin.
Most curiously, he wrote several books on the magic and the occult. If your Latin is competent, you can read some of his magical writing here. Or, you may find the first English translation more accessible.
Of potentially greater interest is a proto-feminist volume he dedicated to Margaret of Austria. Declamatio de nobilitate et praeccellentia foeminei sexus (Declamation on the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex) defended the equality of the sexes and attributed women’s inferior social status to cultural traditions, inequality in access to education, and the domination of men.
As for Agrippa’s confused bonds with the occult and Christian theology, consider this repudiation of the occult written near the end of his life.
But of magic I wrote whilst I was very young three large books, which I called Of Occult Philosophy, in which what was then through the curiosity of my youth erroneous, I now being more advised, am willing to have retracted, by this recantation; I formerly spent much time and costs in these vanities. At last I grew so wise as to be able to dissuade others from this destruction.
For whosoever do not in the truth, nor in the power of God, but in the deceits of devils, according to the operation of wicked spirits presume to divine and prophesy, and practising through magical vanities, exorcisms, incantations and other demoniacal works and deceits of idolatry, boasting of delusions, and phantasms, presently ceasing, brag that they can do miracles, I say all these shall with Jannes, and Jambres, and Simon Magus, be destined to the torments of eternal fire.
Have you ever wondered if publishers change the covers on their books trying to trick you into buying an extra copy? While I’m sure some unscrupulous publishing houses may have engaged in such questionable practices, surely they would never do so with the books of so honest a man as C.S. Lewis!
Over the past forty years I’ve purchased multiple copies of various works by C.S. Lewis. Occasionally I’ve needed to replace a loan copy that was never returned. A number of times when I’ve taught a class on one of his works, I’ve provided everyone with a personal copy. Sometimes I’ve purchased them with the sole intent to give them to the curious—I have some on my bookshelf right now waiting for the right home.
Through the years I have been struck by the frequency with which covers change. Sometimes, of course, it’s due to different publishers gaining rights to the titles. Often, though, it seems to be based almost on whim. Consider, for example, the diversity in covers for the final volume in C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy. (I picked this title arbitrarily, because of the interplanetary subject matter.)
If you examine the collage of covers, you’ll note some similarities and image reuse. However, the thing that surprised me was the way that a single publisher, Pan Books, had no fewer than four different covers. (Perhaps there is something to the suspicion that booksellers are more than happy to sell multiple copies to inattentive readers?)
It’s no secret that book covers are extremely important. They can increase the sales of marginal works and suppress the distribution of exceptional books. Their enormous influence gave rise to the wise maxim: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Jesus applied a variation of this theme to the publicly righteous hypocrites of his day when he said, “woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27, ESV).
Sadly, I’ve begun reading more than one book that bore an inviting cover and was filled with decomposing grammar, decaying plotlines and putrid characters.
On a website for creative artists, a fan of C.S. Lewis’ works recently experimented with creating innovative covers for three of Lewis’ most popular books.
I wanted to convey an accurate image of the book, while also allowing for some ambiguity so the reader could project their own meaning onto the cover. C.S. Lewis books are traditionally marketed toward Christian audiences, and often have light-hearted covers. . . . I wanted the books to appeal to a non-Christian audience, and I wanted the books to have a gritty and more emotional feeling, while also alluding to the extraordinary qualities inside the book.
I believe Will succeeded in his goals . . . and also made the covers simpler and more striking than many of the cluttered covers that adorn my shelf.
C.S. Lewis’ Thoughts on Book Covers
In 1915, Lewis wrote to his closest friend, Arthur Greeves, about hoping to get a library-worthy copy of The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser.* Unfortunately, he found the most suitable edition unappealing. “The pictures are tolerable but the print, if I remember, rather coarse (you know what I mean) and the cover detestable.”
In 1936, Lewis was writing to a friend in which he recommends the books of Charles Williams. After commending Williams’ skill in portraying virtuous characters, he adds, “the fact that Gollancz publishes them (in lurid covers) suggests that all this substantial edification—for it is nothing less—must be reaching the ordinary thriller-reader.” The comment makes me wonder what Lewis would have thought of some of the contemporary covers chosen for his own books.
Pauline Baynes was the illustrator with whom Lewis worked for The Chronicles of Narnia. In 1951 Lewis provided her with a sketch of the map of Narnia and its surroundings. The next week he wrote to her.
My idea was that the map should be more like a medieval map than an Ordnance Survey–mountains and castles drawn–perhaps winds blowing at the corners–and a few heraldic-looking ships, whales and dolphins in the sea. Aslan gazing at the moon would make an excellent cover design (to be repeated somewhere in the book; but do as you please about that.)
In a 1958 letter to Jocelyn Gibb, Lewis discusses his changes to the editing proofs of Reflections. His remarks about the cover of the book are interesting, particularly as they reveal his distaste for handwriting fonts, at least in that context.
About the Dust Cover, I like the colour scheme and wouldn’t object. If you have it, I should go for the best design, and archaeology be damned. But I don’t like the letters. We have very nice plain Roman Capitals now . . . and I think it a bad fashion to substitute printed mimicry of ugly handwriting. I wish all publishers would stop it.
Even if the handwriting were a beautiful script, which this is not, the whole idea that decoration consists in making everything masquerade as something else, is surely wrong. Do you like smoking-rooms on ships made up to look like Scotch baronial halls?
There is no better way to end this column than by quoting C.S. Lewis’ glorious description at the finale of The Chronicles of Narnia. As the stories end, the children are ushered into heaven by Aslan who, as he spoke, “no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them.”
All their life in this world and all their adventures had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before (The Last Battle).
* Lewis would have loved to own this critical edition of The Fairie Queene, which would not be published until seventeen years after he wrote this letter. And, today, you can download volume one for free!
Who among us has lived a life free of typographical errors? When we learned to type (or “keyboard”), our typing speed was influenced by the number of incorrect characters we included.
Even worse, some infernal source birthed the idea of “autocorrect,” which is occasionally useful for documents, but just as frequently deadly for emails and texts.
Lewis’ own books have included a number of typographical errors. Arend Smilde, a Dutch scholar and translator, has noted a fair number of them on his valuable website.
The truth is, it is possible for errors to creep in whenever original manuscripts are copied.
Even with the Scriptures, existing manuscripts include various minor variations, since the autographs have been lost to history.
This fact necessitates the need for “textual criticism,” and many earnest biblical scholars have devoted their lives to discerning the original text. (“Criticism” in this use, does not connote negativity. It simply refers to study, such as with “literary criticism.”)
Textual criticism diverges significantly from the so-called “higher criticisms” which frequently result in confusion and doubt.* Comparing actual texts is fundamental to the study of all literary creations.
C.S. Lewis wrote a brilliant essay entitled “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,” which is currently known as “Fern-Seed and Elephants.” In it, he distinguishes between the various types of criticism and affirms textual examination as utterly valid.
We think that different elements in this sort of theology have different degrees of strength. The nearer it sticks to mere textual criticism . . . the more we are disposed to believe in it. And of course, we agree that passages almost verbally identical cannot be independent. It is as we glide away from this into reconstructions of a subtler and more ambitious kind that our faith in the method waivers; and our faith in Christianity is proportionally corroborated.
The sort of statement that arouses our deepest scepticism is the statement that something in a Gospel cannot be historical because it shows a theology or an ecclesiology too developed for so early a date. For this implies that we know, first of all, that there was any development in the matter, and secondly, how quickly it proceeded.
When books are published, errors slink in. This generates errata, which are presumably corrected in any subsequent editions of the work. (It dawns on me that I’ve never seen an erratum, noting there is only one mistake in the work.)
The Genesis of Today’s Thoughts
Curiously, the article that led me to think about textual errors involves the substitution of an i for an e. The result is that for centuries, people mistakenly believed that Rome had a “Little Temple of Ridicule.” The notion was that the ancient Romans so loved humor, that they “went so far as to erect a ridiculi aedicula, or chapel of laughter.” This curious article is well worth reading (hint: it has something to do with Hannibal’s retreat).
It’s not that the idea of humor shouldn’t be celebrated. On the contrary, laughter features broadly in C.S. Lewis’ works. In a letter written shortly after his marriage to Joy, he alludes to Dante’s portrait of heaven. It is an image Lewis affirmed, and one that I happily anticipate.
Of course Heaven is leisure (“there remaineth a rest for the people of God”): but I picture it pretty vigorous too as our best leisure really is. Man was created “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
Whether that is best pictured as being in love, or like being one of an orchestra who are playing a great work with perfect success, or like surf bathing, or like endlessly exploring a wonderful country or endlessly reading a glorious story—who knows? Dante says Heaven “grew drunken with its universal laughter.”
* For an informative discussion of the different forms of criticism, see this conversation. In response to the question “How is it, then, that the Higher Criticism has become identified in the popular mind with attacks upon the Bible and the supernatural character of the Holy Scriptures?” the author writes:
Some of the most powerful exponents of the modern Higher Critical theories have been Germans, and it is notorious to what length the German fancy can go in the direction of the subjective and of the conjectural. For hypothesis-weaving and speculation, the German theological professor is unsurpassed.
Some of the men who have been most distinguished as the leaders of the Higher Critical movement in Germany and Holland have been men who have no faith in the God of the Bible, and no faith in either the necessity or the possibility of a personal supernatural revelation.
Few writers attain their full potential without the advice and encouragement of others.
C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien recognized that fact.
For many years they gathered regularly with a number of other keen minds, almost all of whom shared their Christian faith. (Notably, Owen Barfield who was an Anthroposophist, was a notable exception.) Some writers visited the community as guests.
I’ve written in the past about the great benefit provided by Inkling-style literary criticism. It’s all about synergy.
Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference is one of the premier gatherings of its sort. After many years of hoping to attend, my wife and I journeyed to California for its Fiftieth Anniversary this past week. What a blessing!
In addition to hundreds of zealous writers, the conference was attended by twoscore publishers, agents and writing experts who generously shared their vast knowledge. And I use that word “generously” in a literal sense. The faculty made itself accessible to a degree I have never before witnessed (and I am a veteran of innumerable professional conferences). The speakers were sincerely interested in encouraging each and every participant.
Classes were available for writing novices, journeymen and experts. I found the track on screenwriting to be the most helpful for my own current needs. I hope to put these new lessons into practice in the next few years.
I can confidently assure you that Mount Hermon will also offer the sort of advice and encouragement that you need to advance your own skills to the proverbial “next level.” If you are interested in attending Mount Hermon, you can learn more here.
Back on the Home Front
If you have never enjoyed the benefits of gathering locally with other writers, I strongly encourage you to consider it now.
If you’re on a critique-group-hiatus due to past disappointments, why not look for a fresh group with a healthier focus?
I sincerely believe most of us become better writers while growing together, than we do wandering on our own. Mount Hermon reinforced that conviction.
I encourage each of you to reach your own full potential—with a little help from some new friends.
Do you have trouble remembering what you read? Read on for a solution to your problem.
C.S. Lewis possessed an amazing memory of what he had read. While eidetic memory remains theoretical, many attributed a “photographic memory” to the Oxford don. Owen Barfield, Lewis’ close friend, described this gift.
He had that very pictorial imagination. I know when we used to go on walks, I used to envy him that. . . . He had what I think is called by some people an “eidetic memory,” when your imaginative pictures are almost photographic. (Owen Barfield on C.S. Lewis edited by G.B. Tennyson)
Describing Lewis’ earnest patience with others, however “ignorant or naïve” (Barfield’s opinion) the person, Barfield describes how readily Lewis recalled pertinent facts.
First he would speak as one simple man exchanging experiences with another, and only afterward (if the occasion seemed to call for it and always without the least nuance of didacticism) would he bring to bear, out of his wide reading and phenomenal memory, some pithy utterance—it might be from Aristotle’s Ethics, it might be from an Icelandic saga, it might be from George MacDonald—that contained the very substance of what the two of them had just discovered they had in common.
There appears to be hope on the horizon for those of us who are not blessed with Lewis’ talent for recalling what we read. RMIT University (formerly the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) has devised a new font that uses a psychological principle called “desirable difficulty” to help readers retain more.
The “difficult” part is evident in the lacunae that force one’s mind to fill in the gaps and make sense of each letter and word. The “desirability” comes with the way that our brains are able to decipher with just enough effort to imprint the material more deeply in our minds.
This principle reminded me of something written by Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline. He describes the importance of concentration on our spiritual growth, as we seriously examine and process whatever is worthy of thinking upon. (Philippians 4:8)
I have mentioned the disciplines of service and worship. There are many others. Inward disciplines, like meditation, prayer, fasting, and study, cultivate our heart and mind toward the way of Christ. Meditation is the ability to hear God’s voice and obey his word.
Prayer is ongoing dialogue with the Father about what God and we are doing together. Fasting is the voluntary denial of an otherwise normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity.
Study is the process through which we bring the mind to conform to the order of whatever we are concentrating upon. (Becoming Like Christ)
On the Elegance of Fonts
Longtime readers of Mere Inkling are well aware of my personal fascination with fonts. This link will reveal posts I’ve tagged with the subject. It reveals that different fonts exist for more than aesthetic reasons.
While some are simply created for decorative or mood-setting purposes—such as typefaces that mimic monastic scripts or the text created for the first Narnia film—others are devised for more practical purposes. The latter collection includes one created to aid those who suffer from dyslexia (Dyslexie). The intentionally useful category will now include Sans Forgetica.
Sans Forgetica is available for free. As evidence of either its merit or the promotional skills of its creators, they have already created an extension for the Chrome browser. It allows users to convert internet text on their screens to the memorable font.
I would suggest that such an application be used sparingly. Most of what we read on the internet is not worth recalling, much less clogging our brains with trivia and worse. Still, if applied selectively, it could be useful. After all, if it only moves us a centimeter in the direction of retaining information like C.S. Lewis, that’s a move in the right direction!