Yesterday we looked at two of Lewis’ categories of poor readers: the unliterary (a broad category of those who merely use books to get at ideas) and the status seeker (who reads so he can talk about—or boast about, really—what he’s read). But Lewis’ list gets more interesting. And more convicting.
The Devotee of Culture
The devotee of culture is someone who wants to become more “cultured.” This person, Lewis says, may be very sincere. He’s not looking to follow the latest trends. According to Lewis,
“he is more likely to stick too exclusively to the ‘established authors’ of all periods and nations, ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’. He makes few experiments and has few favourites. Yet this worthy man may be, in the sense I am concerned with, no true lover of literature at all. He may be as far from that as a man who exercises with dumb-bells every morning may be from being a lover of games.”
Lewis’ illustration of playing a sport verses exercising is fascinating. A basketball player and a gym rat are both in great shape, but they are different people. Of course, some play basketball for the sake of fitness, and some lift weights for the sake of improving their basketball performance. But that’s Lewis’ point. There’s one type of person who uses the sport for his own ends (fitness), and there’s another type of person who uses fitness for a greater enjoyment of the sport.
So it is with reading. If you approach a book with the sole intention of becoming more cultured, you’re not reading the book as it’s meant to be read. You’re forcing it into the service of a purpose it was not intended to serve. The devotee of culture never gives his attention to the book as a book; his attention is only on himself.
Let me preempt some likely objections. Lewis is not saying that books do not help us to grow as human beings. Nor would it be wrong to appreciate and enjoy the personal betterment that results from reading good books. In fact, as I’ll show in the next post, Lewis believes that the best books do things to us.
Lewis’ concern is for the way we read books. The person who reads a book purely because he believes it will be “good for him” to do so is not the best reader in Lewis’ opinion. It’s one thing to muscle down your broccoli because even though you’re not enjoying yourself, you know it will make you stronger. The minerals in the broccoli will do their work whether you are a broccoli lover or purely a healthy eater.
But books are different. Reading The Brothers Karamazov with an eye for only those elements that will make you a more cultured human being is not reading The Brothers Karamazov well. Reading a book well means being drawn into the book. It means letting go of your ideas of what you’d like the book to do to you or what you’d like to do with the book and allowing the book to do what it does.
Eating broccoli will nourish your body regardless of your approach. Get it down the old hatch and it’ll do its thing. But skimming The Lord of the Rings for moral lessons or sermon illustrations actually short-circuits the reading process. Read the book well—be drawn into its world, withhold judgment till the end, give it time to saturate your thoughts—and it will yield the lessons and illustrations. But for those lessons to take shape and those illustrations to be seen for what they are, you have to first take the step of reading the book well. You have to first lay aside your agenda for the book and let the book tell you its story. You must first enjoy the book. Only then will the book do its thing.
Is this sounding a bit vague? Don’t worry. Lewis has much more to say about reading well. This one concept of opening yourself up to the book will be the subject of the next post.
 C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961) 8-9.