I have learned that whenever C. S. Lewis weighs in on a subject, I’d better pay attention. He’s not always right, of course, but he is always wise and thought provoking. This is true of everything that Lewis wrote on anything. But when it comes to Lewis writing about reading—an activity he devoted his entire life to—you’d better believe he has some profound things to say.
In this series of posts, I’m going to explore some of the things that Lewis says about reading well in his book An Experiment in Criticism. If you’re at all interested in Literature or even art in general, you should really just pick up the book. In any case, here are some of the highlights.
Good & Bad Readers
C. S. Lewis begins by distinguishing between good readers and bad readers. The difference, Lewis says, is less about which books they read and more about how and why they read those books.
A poor reader—whom Lewis terms “the unliterary man”—doesn’t read books. He uses them:
“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.”
It’s not even a matter of retaining what has been read. If this person’s eyes have passed over the words on the page, it is enough. Lewis describes a person standing in a library for 30 minutes, flipping through a book, trying to decide whether or not she has already read it. But once she decides she’s read the book, she discards it and looks for a different book to read:
“It was for them dead, like a burnt-out match, an old railway ticket, or yesterday’s paper; they had already used it.”
What Lewis is describing is a person who reads books with no appreciation for what the book is, how it was written, how it functions, how it might speak to him and transform him. In our cinematic culture, this person would never waste time on a book if it’s been adapted for film.
Maybe that doesn’t sound like you. After all, if you’re reading this blog, you’re not entirely averse to reading. But even if you wouldn’t class yourself as “unliterary,” you’re not necessarily off the hook. Lewis adds a couple of other poor readers to the list.
The Status Seeker
The status seeker reads for reputation. She follows all of the trends of literary fashion, reading only those things deemed at the moment to be in good taste. And she reads them in order to say she’s read them, to be able to discuss them with the right people. This person will read books, but Lewis would not call her a good reader.
I’ll go ahead and admit that this one’s convicting. Anyone else?
But don’t worry. It actually gets worse. Lewis adds another category of poor reader to the list: the devotee of culture. This one will takes a little longer to unpack, and I’ve already said enough for one post, so we’ll look at this misguided approach to reading tomorrow. But let me just say that this category hits the closest to home for me.
 C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961) 2.
 Ibid., 2.