If you were to embark on a university education today, which sort of campus would you prefer?
(1) A university featuring “vaulted ceilings that draw the eye upwards and outwards . . . the frivolous artistic detail that announces the importance of the unimportant [or] the interplay of light and shade that marks the great Gothic masterpieces, the brilliant proportions of the best classical buildings, and the elaborate grandeur of the Baroque.”
(2) A modern campus comprised of “buildings entirely lacking in charm, grace, or playfulness [featuring] the boxy utilitarian grimness of official educational architecture.”
A second question clearly betrays my own preference. Which academic setting do you imagine C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their fellow Inklings would most esteem? Tolkien, after all, was not complaining in a letter to his future bride when he wrote “I have got to go to the college library now and get filthy amongst dusty books . . .”
The quotations included in the choices above come from a thought-provoking essay just posted on the website of First Things. The British writer, Niall Gooch, melds wit and genuine insight as he offers an answer to the question “Why are Universities So Ugly?” I highly commend it to you.
Libraries are of particular interest to many of us who treasure the Inkling ethos. And the article includes a delightful discussion of the treasure houses “now called ‘Information Centers’ or ‘Knowledge Hubs.’”
Books increasingly appear to be an afterthought, squeezed into the small spaces not occupied by banks of computers or the glass rooms designated as group work areas. Quiet has been banished to special Silent Study rooms, where those dangerous oddballs who wish to sit still by themselves and concentrate on one thing for a long period can be safely segregated from the normal people.
Inkling Libraries at Cambridge and Oxford
In 1959, C.S. Lewis wrote to T.S. Eliot. Both men served on the Commission to Revise the Psalter. Lewis mentions that he will be hosting an upcoming meeting of the Commission at Cambridge, and that he had secured one of the libraries for their use.
I can’t find the name and address of the secretary of our Commission on the Psalms. As you are in London could you kindly let her know that I have rescued the use of the inner library at Magdalene for our July session? It would be convenient if she told me – for the benefit of the servants – what our daily hours of sitting are likely to be. I also look forward to it.
Although Magdalene College has a distinguished history, it too has joined the revolution offering more contemporary Information Centers. They proudly declare “The New Library is . . . a purpose-built space in College for Magdalene students to meet, work, relax and find inspiration.”
As for the “Inner Library,” to which Lewis referred, I believe it to be what is presently called “The Old Library.” It fittingly includes among its special collections, “the books and manuscripts of T.S. Eliot (Honorary Fellow).”
In this article, we trace the typology of the library through history, highlighting twelve of the most important libraries in the world, from Ancient Alexandria to Raleigh, North Carolina, where robots retrieve books from storage.
A fitting close to our consideration of libraries comes from a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien in 1966. The English Faculty of Oxford University had commissioned a bust of Tolkien – to be sculpted by his daughter-in-law. It presently resides in the English Faculty Library, which undoubtedly displays the elegant architecture of the classical university.
I feel much honoured, and so also does my daughter-in-law (the sculptress), by the Faculty’s wish to place the bust of me in the English Library in some prominent position – if on second thoughts you do not think a storied urn would be better. I shall be most pleased to present it to the Faculty.
It occurs to me that the plaster bust is rather fragile and very easily damaged. I suggest, therefore, that I should have it cast in bronze for presentation (at my own cost). I have already referred the matter to the sculptress who knows how these things are done.
Once in bronze it would then be unaffected by any dignities or indignities offered to it. I often used to hang my hat on the Tsar of Russia’s bust, which he graciously presented to Merton.
The illustration accompanying today’s post is the bust of Tolkien referred to in his correspondence. (In light of this column’s discussion, one can hardly ignore the rather utilitarian architecture revealed through the window behind the celebrated author.)
Would you like to receive free books for the simple exchange of a short, honest review of them? If so, join me at LibraryThing. Best of all, they offer additional benefits for readers (and writers).
You may already have a free account there, since they offer a book cataloging system connecting you to fellow readers, which appeals to many book lovers.
They also offer TinyCat, which is a sophisticated cataloging system designed for small libraries. And it is free for personal use! I don’t have the time to input my own library, despite all of their tools for making that easy, but it could well work for you. [Warning: if your library includes more than 20,000 items, it may be a tad too large.]
Requesting a book for review is simple. Each month they list a bunch of new, mostly self-published titles that are available. You express your interest and they distribute the quantity that are available. You can see current offerings here: LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The truth is that I rarely request a title. The vast majority are fiction, while my tastes strongly lean toward nonfiction. Even there, available time restricts my interests to a handful of topics. Still, I wrote a review about a book I received entitled A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Postmodern Times: Aphorisms. (I am a sucker for thought-provoking maxims, especially if they are witty.) More on my review in a moment.
In the past I’ve written book reviews for military and theological journals. Most publications offer specific guidelines as to what they desire in a review. If you opt to ignore these, you are wasting everyone’s time. Most online sites are more tolerant.
Writing Book Reviews
Writing effective reviews is an art in itself. To do it well requires some conscious effort. To simply describe something as “good” or “boring” is basically not worth the effort. You need to think about what you, as a potential reader, are interested in knowing about a title before you invest your time and money in procuring it.
It appears there are hundreds of online sites describing the process. This one from Grammarly is a quick, clear read. One piece of their advice relates directly to my latest review.
Remember that you’re reviewing a book that another human poured their heart and soul into to write. Express your honest opinion, but don’t be nasty about it.
That sentiment is similar to one I just read in an old magazine I was perusing.
Concerning satire, I’ve always followed the rule laid down by an old college professor: “I only pick on those I love.” If I have trouble loving someone, it’s better if I refrain from jokes, satire, and teasing.
C.S. Lewis & the Art of Reviewing Books
If one were to tally all the reviews that have been written about the works of C.S. Lewis, their number might rival the grains of sand spread around the world’s beaches.*
It is unsurprising that Lewis, being a professor of English literature, wrote a significant number of book reviews himself. Some of the most notable are gathered in Image and Imagination. While the volume includes a number of valuable essays, it is the collection of his published book reviews which are of interest to us today.
You see, in Image and Imagination we encounter ten of his reviews written about books authored by his fellow Inklings. These include Owen Barfield, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. The volume is edited by Walter Hooper, who ably introduces each of the reviews, and provides unique insight. For example, he notes C.S. Lewis’ ongoing debate with Owen Barfield about anthroposophy.
Barfield’s conversion to Anthroposophy . . . marked the beginning of . . . the ‘Great War’ between [the two friends]. . . . While the ‘Great War’ had ended years before, the problem Lewis faced in reviewing Romanticism Comes of Age is that it contains in the Introduction and other places Barfield’s ‘case’ for Anthroposophy (“Who Gaf Me Drink?”).
Lewis’ review of the culmination of the Lord of the Rings is worth the full price of the collection. Doesn’t the following ring true?
The other excellence is that no individual, and no species, seems to exist only for the sake of the plot. All exist in their own right and would have been worth creating for their mere flavour even if they had been irrelevant.
Treebeard would have served any other author (if any other could have conceived him) for a whole book. His eyes are ‘filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking.’
Through those ages his name has grown with him, so that he cannot now tell it; it would, by now, take too long to pronounce. When he learns that the thing they are standing on is a hill, he complains that this is but ‘a hasty word’ for that which has so much history in it (“The Dethronement of Power”).
On My Review of the Curmudgeon’s Concerns
My recent review (to which I referred above) was not easy to write. What made it difficult was my mixed opinion of the aphorisms chosen for the publication. Most were quite interesting, and a few were downright brilliant. The problem was the strong bias of the author when he addressed two “controversial” topics – politics and religion.
Unlike Mark Twain, to whom I refer in the review, this author forsakes humor when he deplores subjects with which he disagrees. Twain made it clear how he stood, but usually in a manner that left even his opponents entertained. This particular book is much more “curmudgeonly,” in that some of it is delivered in an ill-tempered, alienating manner.
If you are curious in seeing how I threaded the needle of honestly reviewing a book with problematic material, you can read it here. While praising many aspects of the book, I did make one critical observation related to an aphorism related to The Chronicles of Narnia.
Greene even invokes my favorite author to mischaracterize Christianity. “C.S. Lewis depicted God as a lion. The lion, of course, is a predator.” So much for agnus dei and Aslan’s manifestation as a lamb.
A Final Encouragement
If you are a writer, or an aspiring writer, consider writing some book reviews. It can provide a more welcoming entrée into the publishing world than other features. Write it in a style similar to the reviews they normally run, and be sure to read any guidelines they provide for contributions. As with other submissions, it’s best to query first. Best of luck!
* The World Atlas estimate of 2.5 to 10 sextillions may suggest this estimate of Lewisian reviews may be hyperbole. But at least I did not refer to the number of stars, which is estimated at 10 to 200 sextillion.
Oh, the curse of being a book lover. How can we thin the shelves of our libraries to make room for new additions we absolutely must add?
Digital copies have resolved the worst of that problem for many of us. Yes, holding a physical book in our hands is different altogether from reading off a screen, but when you compare the space requirements . . . or the accessibility when away from home or office . . . well, it is to me a worthwhile tradeoff.
I have always invested a significant (read “huge”) portion of my discretionary income in books. Like C.S. Lewis, I regard a good library as a treasure. While we both appreciate the extensive collections available in public and academic libraries, borrowing a text is not the same as owning it. Lewis alludes to this in a slightly off-handed manner in a 1952 letter to fellow Inkling, Roger Lancelyn Green.
I have re-read The Luck and liked it very much, as I had felt at the first reading . . . As luck would have it I met a lady who was looking for things to “read to the children” & The Luck is now on her list. I think she’s a buyer too, not a library addict.
The full title of the book to which Lewis refers is The Luck of the Lynns, and it was written by Green himself. This essay offers an excellent discussion of the book, and the author himself.
Books shaped Lewis’ life, particularly its beginning. In Surprised by Joy he describes visits to the home of Irish relatives. “In some ways Mountbracken was like our father’s house. There too we found the attics, the indoor silences, the endless bookshelves.”
Unpacking Book Boxes Twenty Years Later
Life has settled down to the point where I have been able to attack the forty to fifty boxes of books that were pulled out of storage when I retired and built our home. They weren’t actually removed from storage. It was more like a transfer—from a commercial storage unit to two-thirds of our three-car garage.
It’s been liberating to feel free to donate about 80% of the books to local charities. Some of those I’m retaining will join them in new libraries after I’ve had a chance to glean a few details from them. Coincidentally, this week one book box I unsealed included a few files, and among them was “Before the Book Sale,” from a 1995 issue of Christian Century.
The author, James M. Wall, was a Methodist pastor. His death this March, at the age of ninety-two, makes the article’s pull quote exceptionally poignant: “As I choose which books go and which stay, I confront my past and my mortality.”
Since the article is not available online, I will make it available as a one page pdf to anyone who requests a copy. The essay begins casually, but moves into a serious conversation that is well worth the read.
My town puts on a book sale every fall. Proceeds go to a worthy cause, and I am told the event is well attended. I never go because I already have too many books on my crowded shelves. But I do participate in the sale as a supplier.
It is for this reason that each summer as the time to turn books in approaches I am seized by an intense feeling of anxiety. I know I have to prune my shelves and I also know that there is no reason to hold onto all the books I have.
As I choose what goes and what stays, I confront my mortality—Who will want all these books when I am gone?—and my past. Each title evokes a memory of an earlier time of intense interest in a particular topic . . . and when I reject a book I once thought had to remain with me forever, I wonder in what ways I’ve changed.
The Final Disposition of One’s Books
In years past, it was not uncommon for exceptional personal libraries to be presented, in toto, to a university library. Today, the largest collection of books that originally graced the office and home of C.S. Lewis are housed at the Wade Center of Wheaton College.
A complete list of titles in the Lewis archive comes replete with indications whether a title includes a signature, underlining, and/or a handwritten annotation.
As for my own library, I hope my children and grandchildren will want to hold onto most of it. I have a feeling that ultimately the bulk of physical texts I still own will relate to the Inklings and related subjects. (I also have a substantial digital library in Logos, but that is primarily theological, and presently beyond the interests of those not headed to a seminary.)
Whatever the shape and size of your own library, the key is to actually use it. And it’s even more fun when you share it (with people who know how to respect books, of course).
Even if you have no funds available to purchase books, there are vast numbers of amazing volumes in the public domain that you can download for free.*
And finally, don’t hesitate to use your local library. Neither C.S. Lewis nor I would ever honestly desire to disparage a “library addict.” After all, he probably spent a hundredfold more hours reading library books than all the regular readers of Mere Inkling combined.
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!
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.
Just because you read a book doesn’t mean you need to purchase it for your library. Yet some of us do feel compelled to add almost every volume we enjoy to our personal collections. The dilemma arises when the cost of a particular book may exceed its “long-term” value to us.
Faced with this question a few weeks ago, I pursued a course open to many readers of Mere Inkling. I simply borrowed the book from my local library, which in turn borrowed it via interlibrary loan from a university in a neighboring state. Most libraries offer this service without charge. I regularly use it when researching obscure subjects I don’t anticipate I will continue to follow.
The subject of the particular text I am currently reading, of course, C.S. Lewis. While I believe I own a copy of every work ever written by Lewis that has been published, I doubt any human being could gather together every book written about the Oxford and Cambridge professor.
The Volume in Question
So, I have been spending some time during recent days reading notes and essays on Lewis that were written in a variety of periodicals and collected in 1992. Critical Thought Series 1: Critical Essays on C.S. Lewis was edited by George Watson, and published by Scolar Press. Watson also served as General Editor of the Series, compiled “in an attempt to recover the controversies that have surrounded the great critics of the modern age.”
The material is of particular interest to those interested in Lewis’ work as a literary critic. In addition to general reviews, there are special sections for critiques of The Allegory of Love, A Preface to Paradise Lost, and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. Allow me to share a small taste of CEoCSL.
In the editor’s introductory article, he argues that Lewis possessed an “essential modernity, which was seldom if ever noticed in his lifetime.” An example he offers is Lewis’ “mingling of formalism and fantasy.” This facet of Lewis’ genius has a peculiar result.
[Lewis] belongs to that rare breed of critics who are more original than they would wish to be.
Watson also provides an intriguing view of how Lewis’ faith and literary community were perceived by those outside its influence.
Early and late, critics and reviewers found [Lewis] a hard nut to crack. In his middle years, from the late 1930s till his removal to Cambridge in 1954, the critical reception of his works was admiring of his style but wary of his matter.
It was vaguely understood by the late 1930s that a neo-Christian group of story-tellers and critics existed at Oxford, even that they were known as Inklings; but they formed no part of London literary life and were widely seen as a reactionary clique all to apt to a remote, rainy place celebrated for its devotion to lost causes and impossible loyalties.
Lewis, though a best seller, belonged wholly to that remote world, and his sales only made matters worse. They made him look formidable. He and his friends were occasionally dismissed as new-romantics, since a label can be an easy excuse for declining discussion; and the suspected association with Chesterton was not, to avant-garde opinion, endearing. The Inklings were anti-Modernist, anti-modern, backward-looking and deliberately unfashionable.
As I hinted above, this book contains a number of interesting pieces not readily accessible elsewhere. It is no hagiography, and includes essays that offer criticisms of some of Lewis’ writing.
In one review of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, American poet and literary critic Yvor Winters enumerates problems he has with Lewis’ arguments. He then wraps up his review with an analysis of the cause of the disagreements.
There are many men who have re more in this field than I have, and Lewis is certainly one of them. Some of them will find errors in Lewis which have overlooked. I have found more errors in my own few publications than I have found in Lewis. It is not the errors in scholarship which trouble me, primarily, however, for those are inevitable. It is the critical mind that bothers me. . . .
There is a great deal in Lewis’s book which is valuable, and I may as well confess a great deal which has added to my own education. . . . But what is the function of this kind of book? No single man is competent to write it. . . .
Because it is impossible to write a flawless survey] the book is, as I have said, misleading, and so is every other book of the kind which I have ever read. And within twenty years it will doubtless be superseded by another book on the same subject, which will be better in some ways and worse in others.
The first-rate monograph, or the first-rate critical essay, is never superseded; it becomes a part of literature; but the text-book is a hugger-mugger affair, no matter who writes it. Lewis undertook a thankless task, and a hopeless one.
You are fortunate if you have this volume in your library. But don’t let its absence rob you of the chance to read it. There are many fascinating insights to be gleaned from its pages . . . and I am certainly glad that I borrowed it.
Oh, and as to Winters’ prediction that Lewis’ treatment of sixteenth century English literature would be superseded . . . thanks to the marvels of Kindle, it remains in print more than sixty years after his prognostication.
The picture on this page is a drawing entitled, “Their First Quarrel.” It was obviously sketched prior to the invention of the television and cellphone.
Every once in a while, the military has a good idea. Sure, they have a knack for technological breakthroughs in warfare . . . but what about other fields? The NAVY NeRD answers that question in the affirmative.
NeRD stands for Navy eReader Device.
Well-informed readers of Mere Inkling are already aware of the growing intensity of international cyberwarfare. It is no joke, and lives are at stake.
Draconian policies are in place to avoid the contamination of the military computer system by innocently transferred viruses. Since virtually all digital platforms allow for the transfer of data, they are potentially dangerous.
Because of that, even ereaders have been off limits in certain environments. Now, however, someone has thought outside the proverbial box and come up with a solution to that problem.
The United States Navy has devised a novel ereader that comes loaded with 300 titles, but has no ports or wireless connectivity to allow for inadvertent viral transfers.
The selection of books sounds pretty well rounded. Some public domain classics, and a number of contemporary best sellers like A Game of Thrones. Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien will be delighted to know the readers also include The Lord of the Rings.
Reading is a productive way to spend one’s free time during a lengthy period at sea. Even for those not prone to opting for it when faced with all the distractions ashore.
During WWII, C.S. Lewis wrote a letter to a former student who was serving in the Navy, “out of reach of libraries.” It acknowledges the perennial problem of sailors—lack of space for personal property. The letter was written in response to a request from Michael Rayner Thwaites for reading recommendations. Thwaites was an Australian poet and military intelligence officer.
A man who has already your linguistic training might well, I think, begin the Anglo Saxon on his own. You will need E. Wardale Old English Grammar. . . . For texts, the ordinary beginning is first Sweet’s Anglo Saxon Primer and then his Old English Reader. But you, being a classic might well, after a dip in the Primer go on to King Alfred’s trans. of Boethius De Consolatione Philosophiae . . .
Whether you can begin O.E. poetry on your own I don’t know. But try getting . . . Beowulf: and with it Clark Hall’s trans. ed. by Wrenn with preface by Tolkien . . . This edition is essential for it is Tolkien’s part of metre wh. is essential. (O.E. verse uses both quality and accent, and your ear is prob. ruined, as mine was, by the false way they teach Latin metre at schools–drastic re-education is required. . . .
As to modern literature. You must not start out to study it ‘as it reveals man’s hesitant advance to the idea of a God-created world’. Don’t you see you are laying down in advance what a phenomenon is to reveal before you have examined the phenomenon? It may reveal that: it may not. You have to find out. I don’t think I can lay down any v. definite course of reading.
All I can point out is that while you are in the navy and out of reach of libraries and new publications, this is the proper time for solid reading through the big (i.e. long) authors, critical works and histories of lit. can come later. Now is the time for Chaucer, Malory, Spenser, Sidney, Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope, Swift, Johnson, Fielding, Richardson, Cowper, Scott, Wordsworth, Byron, Dickens etc etc.
If you usually keep two books of widely different period and type going together (e.g. Faerie Queene & Tom Jones) you won’t get bored. I myself always index a good book when I read it for the first time noting (a) Linguistic phenomena. (b) Good & bad passages. (c) Customs: meal times, social classes, what they read etc. (d) Moral ideas.
All this reading, tho’ dedicated ad Dei gloriam in the long run must not be infected by any immediate theological, ethical, or philosophic reference. Your first job is simply the reception of all this work with your imagination & emotions. Each book is to be read for the purpose the author meant it to be read for: the story as a story, the joke as a joke.
Back to the NeRD
The Navy is making 385 devices at first, with more to follow, with five being sent to each submarine in the Navy to be shared among the crew.
That’s only the start, of course. One would anticipate that even for a military crew (for example, 155 personnel on a Trident sub), a mere five mini-libraries would prove insufficient. (No offense intended; yours truly is a veteran himself.)
I just got a new library card. It’s emblazoned with the word “Imagination.” While that would be boring news to most, to people who value reading, it’s noteworthy. Some might wonder, why did he wait until he was nearly sixty to get a library card. That’s because there is more to the story.
I happen to live “across the water” from one of the most literacy-loving communities in the United States—Seattle. (“Across the water” means that the quickest way to get to Seattle is by taking one of our scenic, but outrageously expensive, ferries, across Puget Sound.)
Our relatively small county has superb libraries of our own, but they can’t hope to match the holdings of Seattle’s grandiose institutions. Personally, I am not enticed by the sheer volume of volumes available there. I desire access to their abundant research resources, most notably access to historic newspapers.
The great news is that Kitsap County, where I am blessed to reside, maintains reciprocal library privileges with Seattle! When I made a trip to the metropolis to enroll, not only did they expeditiously process my information, the library pulled open a drawer with a dozen colorful options and said, “which card would you like?” (Now, I see how sheltered a life I live; I didn’t know some libraries actually offered members a choice of what image they want to embellish their cards.)
I selected the one bearing the iconic image of the Space Needle. (I actually visited the Space Needle during the World’s Fair . . . but that’s a story for another day.)
Only after I selected it because of the picture, did I realize each card carried the imprint of a single word. “Imagination,” the librarian said, “a good choice.” A very good choice, I thought to myself. Since I place an extremely high value on that ephemeral trait.
Libraries, I’m afraid, are undervalued today. It’s good to see them continuing to provide a valuable service to our communities. Reading is vital to civilization, growth and culture.
C.S. Lewis enjoyed the family library in the home of his youth, and in one of his boarding schools experienced the library not only as a vestibule of knowledge, but also as a place of refuge. The upper classmen of the school subjected the younger boys to relentless hazing, but the library was off limits to their abusive behaviors.*
The other undisguised blessing of the Coll [Wyvern College] was “the Gurney,” the school library; not only because it was a library, but because it was sanctuary. As the Negro used to become free on touching English soil, so the meanest boy was “un-faggable” once he was inside the Gurney.
It was not, of course, easy to get there. In the winter terms if you were not on the list for “Clubs” you had to go out for a run. In summer you could reach sanctuary of an afternoon only under favorable conditions. You might be put down for Clubs, and that excluded you. Or there might be either a House match or a Coll match which you were compelled to watch. Thirdly, and most probably, on your way to the Gurney you might be caught and fagged for the whole afternoon.
But sometimes one succeeded in running the gauntlet of all these dangers; and then— the books, silence, leisure, the distant sound of bat and ball (“Oh the brave music of a distant drum”), bees buzzing at the open windows, and freedom. In the Gurney I found Corpus Poeticum Bo reale and tried, vainly but happily, to hammer out the originals from the translation at the bottom of the page. There too I found Milton, and Yeats, and a book on Celtic mythology, which soon became, if not a rival, yet a humble companion, to Norse. (Surprised by Joy).
While this passage described the library as a glorious sanctuary, it also reveals a tragic snapshot of the bullying that is endemic to many schools. Since I don’t wish to end these thoughts on a negative image, allow me to offer another revelation from Lewis. In a brief essay, he praises imagination, while acknowledging its limitations.
It must not be supposed that I am in any sense putting forward the imagination as the organ of truth. We are not talking of truth, but of meaning: meaning which is the antecedent condition both of truth and falsehood, whose antithesis is not error but nonsense.
I am a rationalist. For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition. It is, I confess, undeniable that such a view indirectly implies a kind of truth or rightness in the imagination itself. (“Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare”).
“Producing new metaphors or revivifying old . . .” What an apt description of the wonders of imagination. And this insight is only one of the countless gems of wisdom I have gratefully received from C.S. Lewis.
* In the language of the school the “Bloods” were the sadistic elites. The youngest and most vulnerable were labeled “fags,” and their mistreatment (forced menial drudgery) was called “fagging.”
Those interested in seeing all five of the Seattle Library options for their new cards, you can do so here.
Many subscribers to Mere Inkling share a common trait with C.S. Lewis. Like your humble blogger, you are lovers of books. We don’t need to apologize for it; it’s in our DNA.
We carry that astonishing gene that manifests itself in a passion for the written word. (It’s frequently inherited from a parent who possessed the same ardor.)
If you’re one of this corpus of literary addicts, you just nod your head in agreement whenever you hear Lewis’ oft-quoted, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”
If you love books, if you don’t mind owning copies that others before you have enjoyed, and if you are on a tight budget, you might want to join me in becoming a customer of Better World Books.
[I have no interest in this nonprofit organization other than genuinely commending them to you as a wonderful source of inexpensive books. Most books have been officially removed from library collections . . . and require new homes. The “profits” are directed towards libraries and literacy programs.]
Many of us have enjoyed walking through rows of books on sale in local settings. This is a little like that, except that you can do digital searches and they have tons more titles available. (Literally.)
One of my recent purchases was Latin for the Illiterati. I purchased it the same day I bought The Anchor Book of Latin Quotations (for a secret project I’m working on).
Latin for the Illiterati includes “common phrases and familiar sayings,” that the reader is now able to decipher when encountered in classical literature. References do not have to be ancient to be included. For example, “salus populi suprema lex esto,” which means “the welfare of the people is the supreme law.” (But I didn’t need to translate that for you residents of Missouri, since it’s your own state motto.)
Quick test, which state has this as its motto? “Vox audita perit, litera scripta manet,” which means “the voice that is heard perishes, the letter that is written remains.” Actually, I cheated a bit, I don’t think it is any government’s motto, but it certainly is a truism that will resonate with readers!
C.S. Lewis valued rereading good books. In a 1915 letter, he wrote, “There is something awfully nice about reading a book again, with all the half-unconscious memories it brings back.”
In that same spirit, the following year he wrote to the same friend, “You really lose a lot by never reading books again.”
As I said, he was explicitly referring to revisiting a work already read. Nevertheless, I believe he would agree with the broader sense of his words . . . that it is a sad thing to see a book destined never to be read again.
Whether or not I am correct is irrelevant. The fact is that there are hundreds of thousands of books awaiting new homes. I don’t doubt that many of them “deserve” to be recycled for their raw materials. However, I also believe that the majority of them remain capable of teaching and inspiring. After all, litera scripta manet, right?