Archives For Books

The Ugliest Book

October 26, 2018 — 9 Comments

mayan image.png

Every reader knows “not all books are created equal.” This fact has two applications. Most importantly, since books are built from words, the comparison refers to comparing the content or message of different works. In a totally distinct sense, it may distinguish between the differing presentation or physical aspects of the book itself.

Fifty-four years after its discovery, the oldest surviving Mayan text has been officially authenticated. One of the reasons for the delay was that “for a long time, critics of the codex said the style wasn’t Mayan and that it was ‘the ugliest’ of them in terms of figures and color.”

What does that mean? It means that just because the tree bark pages were composed by a less skilled artist . . . in a more primitive age . . . living in a relatively impoverished region . . . with a smaller pallet of colors available . . . its authenticity was questioned.

Not quite what I would consider top flight analysis. Fortunately, Mexico’s National Institute of History and Anthropology has finally righted that wrong. They declared, “The Mayan Codex is authentic and the oldest, legible pre-Hispanic manuscript in the Americas,”

Seriously, the only flaw I can find in the facsimile of the pictograph portrayed above is the attachment of a right hand to a left arm. Then again, if Mark Twain could make the very same mistake roughly eight centuries later, I can forgive the ancient Mayan illustrator.

Illustrative Options

Frankly, the more one learns about the publishing industry, the less responsible we can hold authors for the final look of their works. Rarely do they even get to choose the cover art for their books, although sometimes particularly prominent authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis are granted that privilege. That is how the artwork of Pauline Baynes became intimately associated with the two Oxbridge giants.

The lucky few may even be able to select their own fonts, with many wisely opting for the more trustworthy serif families.

For the common woman or man, we are lucky if our publishers even let us have a veto over the artwork that they commission. The exception to this comes with the nature of the self-publishing industry, where the author possesses sole authority in choosing their cover, illustrations, fonts and format.

Still, those hoping for “traditional” publication should recognize in advance how much control over their book they will forfeit to editors and publishers.

With Paper at a Premium

Even with influence in the selection of artwork, some aspects of publishing lie outside the control of writers. A perfect example of this is found in rationing of paper in Britain during the Second World War. The British War Economy Standard meant books visually declined in production quality.

rationing

Paper was rationed, beginning in March 1940, when publishers were allowed only 60 percent of what they had used in 1938-39. The proportion fell to 37.5 percent by January 1, 1942, when the Book Production War Economy Agreement took effect.

The scheme mandated smaller type, less white space, and inferior papers and bindings. It resulted in some remarkably ugly books, but it conserved raw materials. (“Modernity and Print I: Britain 1890-1970” by Jonathan Rose)

A number of Lewis’ books appeared in these wartime editions. They are quite collectible.

Scarce first impression of the true first edition, produced on wartime economy standard paper, and thin boards, published during the Second World War, especially hard to find in its complete original dustwrapper in collectable condition.

Let’s consider an unlikely scenario. In eight centuries, C.S. Lewis’ writings have been forgotten. Then, one archaeologist stumbles across a rare physical copy of a book, that survived the universal “grand purging” following the transfer of such items to some post-digital, post-electronic format.

What would historians assume about the value placed on Lewis’ work if it was a wartime edition compared to other “regular” books by other authors? They could not be faulted for assuming that the people of our day valued the inferior publication less than the “nicer” editions. (This is assuming that the acid-laden paper of the war years would not simply flake apart in their hands.)

The quality of the paper and print make a strong impression on readers. Just as we often judge books by their cover.

C.S. Lewis, a true bibliophile, illustrates how even a modest book (in terms of content) can be deemed “exquisite.” In a 1935 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, he humorously describes the impending publication of The Allegory of Love.

I have finished my book which is called The Allegorical Love Poem, and is dedicated to Barfield. The Clarendon Press have accepted it and hope to have it out by May.

As I am to get 12 free copies (Dents only give one 6) you and Tchanie shall each have one and save your silver: and whatever you think of the matter, I hope, from experience of the Clarendon Press, that binding, paper etc will be—in our old formula—excellent, exquisite, and admirable.

In other words, if you can’t read it, you will enjoy looking at it, smelling it, and stroking it. If not a good book, it will be a good pet! It will be about 400 pp, they say. (It will be funny, after this, if they do it in double columns and a paper cover.)

Returning to the Mayan pages with which we began, we sadly are unable to judge them by their original codex in its pristine state. However, the extant pieces possess great historical value, even if scholars took a long time determining the fact . . . and whether or not they would ever consider it to be “a good pet.”


In case you are interested, Mere Inkling has explored Mayan books before, in “One Weakness of Modern Books.”

 

prayer

I just added a rare C.S. Lewis book to my library for a very reasonable price, and you can too. But you might want to hurry, since this volume will probably never be reprinted.

The small book is entitled Beyond the Bright Blur. It’s contents will be familiar to you if you have read Lewis’ final book, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. That is because the former is a prepublication printing of chapters fifteen through seventeen from Letters to Malcolm.

It was published under unique circumstances, and it is thought that only 350 copies were printed in 1963 by Harcourt, Brace & World.

The title of Beyond the Bright Blur is taken from what would appear as letter fifteen in the complete volume. The “bright blur” to which Lewis refers is our imperfect, abstract and remote impression of “God.” He argues that to engage in genuine conversation with our Creator, we must dispel this fabrication.

What happens to me if I try to [approach prayer] “simply,” is the juxtaposition of two “representations” or ideas or phantoms. One is the bright blur in the mind which stands for God. The other is the idea I call “me.”

But I can’t leave it at that, because I know—and it’s useless to pretend I don’t know—that they are both phantasmal. The real I has created them both—or, rather, built them up in the vaguest way from all sorts of psychological odds and ends.

Very often, paradoxically, the first step [in genuine prayer] is to banish the “bright blur”—or, in statelier language, to break the idol.

Lewis’ candid sharing about his personal pilgrimage in prayer is just part of the treasure that is Letters to Malcolm. It is must reading. But, its priceless message is not the subject of this post.

Beyond the Bright Blur, this modest yet sturdy (hardback) tome, stands complete as it is. And it was expressly designed for a small audience. As the flyleaf states, “This limited edition is published as a New Year’s greeting to friends of the author and his publisher.”

The complete book would not be published until 1964, after Lewis had joined his wife Joy in the presence of our Lord. It is quite fitting that the final pages describe the author’s thoughts about the nature of heaven. It concludes with his final glorious epiphany that “Joy is the serious business of Heaven.”

Consider Adding this Gem to Your Own Library

I know that most readers of Mere Inkling share my affection for literature . . . along with my own affection for literature incarnated in its own natural state, physical books.

The wonderful thing is that adding this particular treasure to your personal collection is within your reach. While the price varies due to the respective booksellers and the condition of each copy, AbeBooks.com often include copies for less than forty dollars.

Occasionally an inscribed volume appears on the market, with a corresponding surcharge in the price. As I write this, the copy presented to the poet John Ciardi (1916-86) is available for purchase. While he’s most famous for his translation of The Divine Comedy, he also co-authored a collection of limericks with Isaac Asimov!

The posting says the volume includes his signature on the front end paper and “a paragraph [underlined] in the text in red ink.” Still, a truly unique volume such as this is quite a bargain at less than two hundred dollars—especially if you are a fan of Ciardi.

I suspect Ciardi received his copy as a gift from the publisher. I haven’t found any evidence that he and C.S. Lewis were acquainted. I did, however, uncover one utterly trivial connection between the two. It appears the two shared an illustrator for some of their American editions. Roger Hane, the cover illustrator for the 1970 Collier-Macmillan edition of the Chronicles of Narnia, also illustrated Ciardi’s undated The Morality of Poetry.

 

war book.png

Some would say “only a fool would bring a book to a gunfight.” That might be true if the person carried the book in lieu of a firearm, but the fact is many varieties of literature accompany soldiers to war.

When Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote “the pen is mightier than the sword,” he offered a powerful insight into how ultimate victory hinges more on knowledge and ideas than on direct violence. Of course, he didn’t mean that in a personal conflict between two combatants a quill could best a saber.

Even those who’ve never been to war realize warriors need to have their bodies, minds and spirits renewed in order to be at their best when their lives hang in the balance. Bodies are taken care of by providing healthy sustenance, swift medical attention, and opportunities to remain fit.

Minds and spirits overlap somewhat, but for the latter, most of the world’s militaries send chaplains to accompany the men and women “in harm’s way.” Spiritual encouragement often comes even more readily from their fellow military members.

Wartime is, surprising no one, an optimal time for people to consider their spiritual wellbeing and contemplate their eternal destiny. Still, that does not make true the adage “there are no atheists in foxholes.”

That said, war zones are places where the fields are literally “white unto harvest” (Luke 4).

It is no accident copies of the Bible have accompanied Christians to war since the first printed copies were available.

During the American Civil War, personal Bibles and religious tracts were widely distributed. It was not uncommon for a soldier to send a particularly meaningful tract home to his family. In addition to chaplains, numerous ministries today work to ensure no service member who desires a Bible is without one.

Reading for the Mind

It would be wrong to think religious works dominate the literature available to military members dispatched to war. Most locations offer access to numerous publications, and even the internet. The Department of Defense even provides access to the nonpartisan Stars and Stripes, which offers some of its headline articles here.

And then there are books. Books of all genres, though perhaps, tilted towards thrillers and sports subjects. Soldiers pass their books around, and for many lucky enough to serve in a garrison type of setting, there is often a library.

Yes, a real library—except that the books are typically all available for free. This is due in large part to the generosity of publishers. During the Second World War, the Council on Books in Wartime, founded by publishers and others, provided over 120 million paperbacks in their Armed Services Editions. (The classic titles sold for an average of six cents.) The Council’s slogan was, “books are weapons in the war of ideas.”

So, military folks read lots of books overseas. In fact, here is a photo of yours truly reading one of my favorite authors (David Drake) while I was on a flight between Pakistan and Afghanistan back in 2002.

I was delighted recently when rereading C.S. Lewis’ autobiography to see that I was following in his footsteps. Lewis is discussing how actual books, and not merely periodicals, can accompany us on our journeys. He refers briefly to his war experiences.

Soon too we gave up the magazines; we made the discovery (some people never make it) that real books can be taken on a journey and that hours of golden reading can so be added to its other delights.

(It is important to acquire early in life the power of reading sense wherever you happen to be. I first read Tamburlaine while traveling from Larne to Belfast in a thunderstorm, and first read Browning’s Paracelsus by a candle which went out and had to be relit whenever a big battery fired in a pit below me, which I think it did every four minutes all that night.) (Surprised by Joy)

I would not equate our two situations. After all, a comfortable C-130 (even when making “combat” landings and take-offs) can hardly be compared to a muddy WWI trench.

But, like nearly all of Mere Inkling’s audience, I do share C.S. Lewis’ joy at knowing books need never be far from our hand. Whether it be on holiday, in the hospital, or even in prison (God forbid), we can always find some pleasure and peace in reading.


Postscript:

During Desert Storm, I helped ship thousands of donated books to troops on the front lines. Unfortunately, there was a problem with the clothing worn by most of the women on the covers. We learned the Saudis were destroying some of the books, deeming them pornography.

As a result, our book processors began tearing the cover off of every book featuring a woman. As a compromise, I offered to become an informal “Saudi censor.” With a large black marker, I was able to suitably cover up elements of the female anatomy that would have presumably offended our Middle East allies.

Despite my misgivings about “defacing” the covers, I felt it was less destructive than removing the entire cover. I’ll leave it to you to be the judge.

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.

Devastated by Criticism

November 14, 2016 — 14 Comments

calvin-criticismHow do you feel when others criticize something you’ve written? Do you just want to tear your work up and start all over again? If you do, you have something in common with J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of Lord of the Rings. And he is not the only great writer with whom you share this hypersensitive trait.

Tolkien’s inability to accept constructive criticism is no secret; it is frequently noted in biographies.

Few people enjoy receiving criticism, and we are often suspicious of the mental health of those who do. Yet many writers actively seek out constructive criticism in order to sharpen their skills and improve their work.

That is a major reason for the existence of writers’ groups which pop up in varying expressions wherever serious writers live. While another benefit of such communities is the simple encouragement that comes from gathering with others who share your passion, it is the critical examination of each other’s manuscripts which provides the clearest concrete benefit. It’s no accident many such literary meetings are actually called critique groups.

Tolkien was a member of one of the most famous such fellowships that ever existed, the Inklings. It was in that setting where he first shared the stories of hobbits and elves who would make such a profound impact on Western literature. He said it was primarily through the encouragement of the Inklings—specifically his good friend, C.S. Lewis—that these amazing stories were ever published.

You see, Tolkien had a terrible and frequently fatal flaw . . . When his writing was criticized, he felt compelled to toss it aside and begin anew. Many other writers have been afflicted with this curse, and not all of them had a C.S. Lewis to rescue their words from the dust bin.

I have shared in the past Lewis’ description of his friend’s handicap.

No one ever influenced Tolkien—you might as well try to influence a bander-snatch. We listened to his work, but could affect it only by encouragement. He has only two reactions to criticism; either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all.

Criticism of the Constructive Variety

As I said a moment ago, no one really craves criticism, and yet most serious writers actively solicit it. As I write this very column, it is with the intention of sharing it tomorrow with my friends in my own writing circles.

When you read it, it will likely have changed, probably in subtle, enriching ways. You can gauge the benefit of mutual critiquing by the amount and the quality of the criticism which is shared. And, should you feel violated, rebuke defensiveness and remind yourself that even the greats, like Tolkien and Lewis, gained from the comments and suggestions of their friends.

I recently learned of another individual who struggled with receiving criticism. It was John Calvin, the father of Reformed theology. Belonging to the Lutheran branch of the church universal, my readings in Reformed history have been limited. However, I’m currently reading two similarly titled books* and I discovered something that may be commonly known to Reformed clergy but was news to me.

He often tended to express his disappointment in extravagant terms. When he encountered an obstacle, his reaction was stark: he would burn his manuscript, never write again, never publish anything again. His decision to write was motivated by external factors: a request by his circle of friends and colleagues, or as the result of his emotional reaction to an event or a work that he read. . . . (John Calvin and the Printed Book)

The good news though is Calvin did not allow these obstacles to have the final say. Instead, he turned to those he trusted and sought their counsel.

Indeed, his extreme sensitivity meant that he needed to have the emotional support of close friends. As a Reformer and specifically as an author, Calvin never worked in isolation even though he was the dominant figure in his setting. While he was confident of the quality of his writings, Calvin still had no hesitation in submitting them to his colleagues before publication. (Ibid.)

Not that Calvin always welcomed suggestions. There was one particular Reformer to whom he sent some of his work whose “commend from Zurich were too numerous and detailed. Hence Calvin stopped sending his manuscripts to Bullinger prior to printing, although he maintained cordial relations with the Zurich Reformer.” I can almost read Calvin’s mind at the time: I asked for your suggestions, not a complete rewrite of the manuscript.

So, it appears those of us who feel discomfort at the sting of criticism—even when we request it—stand in good company. So don’t ever let that temporary pain discourage you from continuing to write.

____

* A 2005 volume is called John Calvin and the Printed Book, while a 2015 collection of essays is called Calvin and the Book.

Slipping into Illiteracy

November 2, 2016 — 7 Comments

no-readingIs it worse to be illiterate, or simply to not take advantage of your ability to read? Mark Twain is errantly credited with this wise statement: “The person who does not read has no advantage over someone who cannot read.”*

I would take this a step further. It seems to me that illiteracy need not mean the inability to read. It can also be used to describe those who choose not to read.

And, in the United States at least, we’re on a downhill slide when it comes to how much time people spend reading each day. Reading that’s not related to their jobs or educational requirements.

The data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which examines in minutiae how citizens spend their time. The most recent American Time Use Survey reveals the disturbing trend.

reading-graphicThe descent begins at the precipice, where those who are seventy-five years old or older enjoy reading for an average one hour and forty-eight minutes each day. It slams to the ground for those fifteen to nineteen who devote only thirteen minutes to leisure reading.

Amazingly, that group is not the worst. Those who are twenty to twenty-four read nearly 8% less than they do, clocking in with a mere twelve minutes. The grim details are available here.

Obviously, we may assume that older people have more leisure time. A second consideration may be that their constitutions are not up to some more physically demanding activities. To minimize the effect of the “workday” influences, the numbers cited above come from weekends or holidays

But even combined, these factors cannot account for the radical differences we see. Younger people are simply not reading.

Too Little Reading

C.S. Lewis wrote a great deal about reading. He regarded it as one of the essential joys of life. He may not have been surprised by these statistics, but he would certainly have been aghast. I have written in the past about Lewis’ views on literacy in “Knowing Our ABCs.”

For Lewis and, I suspect, many readers of Mere Inkling, the desire was always to find more time for reading. In a 1919 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, he cited the inescapable dangers of reading too little.

If only one had time to read a little more: we either get shallow & broad or narrow and deep.

Lewis was also familiar with demands of responsibilities that devour our time and leave little for leisure of any sort. In another letter to Greeves, written eleven years later, he describes this predicament. I share it here at length because it also offers an insight into the role of reading in nurturing his reawakening faith.

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.”

Reading can clearly be good for the soul. And it has another benefit that even unbelievers celebrate. It breaks through the isolation that plagues human life. Technology, it appears, is not delivering on its promise to dispel loneliness.

Reading, in contrast, possesses for many that very power. And a quotation frequently misattributed to Lewis,** but clearly consistent with this beliefs, captures this truth.

We read to know that we are not alone.

_____

* Although Twain is commonly cited as the originator of this phrase, the earliest written parallel appears to be a 1910 publication in which the Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction wrote: “Who can see the barely perceptible line between the man who can not read at all and the man who does not read at all? The literate who can, but does not, read, and the illiterate who neither does nor can?”

** On the internet you will frequently find these words attributed to Lewis, and in a sense they do come from his lips. It comes from the television film Shadowlandswritten in 1985 by William Nicholson for BBC.

The image at the top of the page comes from this interesting video with a unique contemporary twist on reading:

mayanC.S. Lewis offered one of his keen insights into literature when he wrote: “The more ‘up to date’ the book is, the sooner it will be dated.” (Letters to Malcolm)

The racks of clearance titles at bookstores provide ample evidence of that truth. It’s particularly evident with nonfiction works dealing with technology. Their shelf life can be counted in months (if they are fortunate).

But the short lifespan of modern writing is not restricted to science-driven topics. It also relates to the literary “fads” that come and go like mists dispelled by the afternoon sun.

There appears to be a direct correlation between touting the modernity or timeliness of a book and it imminent obsolescence. Many readers of Mere Inkling vividly recall the deluge of books warning about the dangers posed by Y2K. The new millennium was guaranteed—in the eyes of publishers milking the rare event—to bring momentous change, perhaps including catastrophic disasters.

When that crisis failed to materialize, there was a slightly less voluminous—but equally ominous—discussion of the threat of Armageddon heralded by the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012. It was newsworthy enough that NASA posted this message the day after “doomsday.”

News flash: the world didn’t end on Dec. 21, 2012. You’ve probably already figured that out for yourself. Despite reports of an ancient Maya prophecy, a mysterious planet on a collision course with Earth, or a reverse in Earth’s rotation, we’re still here.

The Mayan connection “was a misconception from the very beginning,” says Dr. John Carlson, director of the Center for Archaeoastronomy. “The Maya calendar did not end on Dec. 21, 2012, and there were no Maya prophecies foretelling the end of the world on that date.”*

It is unfair, though, to single out time sensitive publications as doomed to pass quickly into the recycling bin. After all, it wasn’t technological or calendar-focused texts Lewis was referring to.

What Lewis was critiquing is books that consciously attempt to catch the latest wave of popularity . . . without recognizing that only a small fraction of such movements are of lasting value.

He despised books that lacked substance and were utterly transient in their “value.”

Lewis knew from personal experience about the varying quality and potential lifespan of books. The following passage from his autobiography describes vividly how in his childhood he was exposed to books of all sorts, even though some had been purchased only because of his parents’ “transient” interests.

I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles.

Also, of endless books. My father bought all the books he read and never got rid of any of them. There were books in the study, books in the drawing room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents’ interest, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not.

Nothing was forbidden me. In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves. I had always the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks into a field has of finding a new blade of grass. (Surprised by Joy)

Lewis believed that any good book was worth rereading. As a relatively young man he wrote in 1916, “You really lose a lot by never reading books again.” Sixteen years later he would write to Arthur Greeves once again and say, “I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.” And, without belaboring the subject, in 1933 he would once again voice this conviction to his lifelong friend. “Clearly one must read every good book at least once every ten years.”

The “good books,” of course, were those that had proven themselves over the passage of time. They were polar opposites to the shallow, insipid writing Lewis derided.

In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis elaborates on this notion. He argues that no truly worthwhile text can be fully digested in a single reading.

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.

It is honest to acknowledge that a book only recently published is not inherently of lesser value than something that has remained of sufficient value to have been preserved over the centuries. After all, every book was at one time new.

Lewis offers a persuasive rationale for his position reading outside one’s own historical context is beneficial.

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”)

It should be noted that Lewis did offer an exception to his rule about revisiting texts. He regarded it as feasible that a volume of facts or “information” could be processed in one reading.

No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty—except, of course, books of information. The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all. (“On Stories”)

Lewis could exclude “books of information” from requiring rereading due to his prodigious memory which made that unnecessary. Lesser minds, such as that of the writer of this column, often benefit from returning to even these books.

Lewis, however, was absolutely convinced that the classics (using the term in a broad sense) were vital to developing the mind. He even proposed a specific ratio for one’s literary consumption.

It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. (“On the Reading of Old Books”)

One reason for alternating one’s reading is to ensure we don’t ingest too much mental “junk food.” After all, as Lewis writes in “Learning in War-Time,”

You are not, in fact, going to read nothing . . . if you don’t read good books you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally.

The Classics as Curricula

Recent years have witnessed a revival of interest in reading what Lewis called “old books,” as the essential foundation for an excellent education. He would certainly have applauded this movement.

Numerous American colleges and universities offer Great Books programs. The Association for Core Texts and Courses tracks them here.

One Roman Catholic university describes theirs in this way:

Our students immerse themselves in the Great Books (the Western Canon), the Good Book (the Bible), and God’s “First Book” (nature)—all of which we consider necessary for a true liberal education. Our humanities curriculum starts our freshmen off in Homeric Greece and brings our seniors through modernity and postmodernity. In a time of cultural amnesia, this deep study in the sweep of Western literature, history, politics, and philosophy cultivates the intellect and the heart.**

The Great Books Foundation is an organization established to provide resources for younger students. It’s never too early, supporters believe, to undertake this approach to grounding one’s education.

The C.S. Lewis Society, which operates the Study Center at the Kilns where Lewis resided, has been attempting to fund C.S. Lewis College in the States. They have a grand dream, inspired by the worldview of their namesake. “C.S. Lewis College will be a college of the Great Books and the Visual and Performing Arts.”

God-willing, in the future, more and more enlightened readers, taught from their youth to value quality literature, will echo Lewis’ words, saying, I too “am a product . . . of endless books.”

_____

* The full article is here and offers an interesting insight in to Mayan religion. According to Carlson,

“If we could time warp a Maya to the present day, they would say that Dec. 21, 2012, is a very important date. Many Maya believed that their gods who created the world 5125 years ago would return. One of them in particular, an enigmatic deity named Bolon Yokte’ K’uh, would conduct old rites of passage, to set space and time in order, and to regenerate the cosmos.” The world would be refreshed, not destroyed.

** “Mother Church or Uncle Sam” by Kevin Roberts (unfortunately not available in full online).