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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.

A Rare C.S. Lewis Book

March 29, 2017 — 6 Comments

readers

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.

Personal Libraries

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.

Navy Nerds

May 19, 2014 — 7 Comments

nerdEvery 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.)

Libraries & Imagination

March 20, 2014 — 15 Comments

librarycardI 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.

Recycling Literature

July 15, 2013 — 16 Comments

recycled pageMany 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?