Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Skeptic's Adventure in Narnia

The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventure in Narnia
by Laura Miller (Little, Brown & Company 2008)

I just got this book for Christmas. I've only just begun, but already I love it, even though I never read Narnia as a child and only read a few volumes late in adulthood. This is a book for for those who fell head over heels in love with books and the worlds where they transported us, and then... kept reading and reading, sometimes in spite of rather than what we learned later about reading critically and thinking about where an author was leading us.

The entire introduction is marvelous in itself, but here is an excerpt from an excerpt:
There is yet another reason to devote the kind of attention to the Chronicles that critics ordinarily reserve for the works of writers like Flaubert or F. Scott Fitzgerald, and it may be the most persuasive of all. In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis floats the idea that we can determine how good a book is by how it is read. This was an offbeat notion at a time when most critics judged a book by how it was written, and it would become an irrelevant one a few years later, when deciding how “good” a book was would seem immaterial to most academics. But Lewis — who was, above all else, a passionate, omnivorous and generous reader — thought that this might be the best way to appreciate a book’s worth, especially since he regarded the literary mandarins of his day as slaves to pernicious intellectual fads.

A hater of progress, newfanglement and vulgarity, Lewis was not a notably tolerant man, but reading brought out the populist in him. He worked out a set of criteria for identifying truly “literary” readers; their ranks include people who re-read books, those who savor what they read for more than just the plot, and those for whom the first encounter with a favorite book is an “experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison. Their whole consciousness is changed. They have become what they were not before.”
Nothing on this list dictates what type of book the literary reader ought to prefer; it is the quality of the attention brought to it that matters. There is an uncharacteristic radicalism to Lewis’s further suggestion that if we can find “even one reader to whom the cheap little book with its double columns and the lurid daub on its cover had been a lifelong delight, who had read and reread it, who would notice, and object, if a single word were changed, then, however little we could see in it ourselves and however it was despised by our friends and colleagues, we should not dare to put it beyond the pale.”

He is, among other things, describing the way certain children read certain books, with a fervor that can inspire mystification and awe in their adult counterparts. Such experiences can’t be merely ephemeral, meaningless, but they often seem entirely inaccessible when we look back on them years later. This, at least, is what Clive James felt upon returning to Professor Challenger, and so he was forced to dismiss the whole situation as merely comical. Still, how could he have failed to be formed as a man and as a reader by Doyle’s adventure yarns? We would not expect any other overwhelming emotional experience from his childhood to have left him untouched. Today, James is a gifted, witty critic. Perhaps there is more to Professor Challenger than meets the eye.
The relationship between book and reader is intimate, at best a kind of love affair, and first loves are famously tenacious. A first love teaches you how to be with another human being by choice, rather than out of the imperative of blood ties. If we are lucky, our first love shows us how to negotiate the paradox of entering into a union with someone who remains fundamentally unknowable. First love is a momentous step in our emotional education, and in many ways, it shapes us forever.
From an excerpt printed here. More about the book from the author at Laura Miller and another excerpt, "Talking to the Animals" printed at Salon.

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