Lewis explains that a good reader has a much different experience with a book than a poor reader does. The “unliterary” toss a book once it’s been read—it’s been used up. For a “literary man,” his first reading of a book is often:
“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.”
Many readers will know immediately what Lewis is talking about there. The best stories get into us so deeply that we know we won’t walk away from the book unchanged.
And here is where the distinction between the poor reader and the true reader comes more clear. Lewis explains that so many people get so caught up in their desire to do this or that with the book that they give the book no chance to do anything to them. If we force a book to suit our own needs, we are not letting the book speak. When we do this, Lewis says, we read a book by someone else but ultimately “we meet only ourselves.”
“In reading imaginative work, I suggest, we should be much less concerned with altering our own opinions—though this of course is sometimes their effect—than with entering fully into the opinions, and therefore also the attitudes, feelings and total experience, of other men.“
Step 1 is not critiquing the opinions of others. Step 1 is entering their opinions.
Many people are too agenda-driven to be good readers. Lewis insists that we must read as a means of experiencing:
“The question ‘What is the good of reading what anyone writes?’ is very like the question ‘What is the good of listening to what anyone says?’ Unless you contain in yourself sources that can supply all the information, entertainment, advice, rebuke and merriment you want, the answer is obvious.”
And this where Lewis gives another helpful caution regarding our standards in reading books. You might be tempted to say, “Ok, I’ll do this with good books. But I’m not going to give any time to bad books.” Lewis responds by saying that we can’t possibly know that a book is bad if we haven’t given it a fair chance.
“We can never know that a piece of writing is bad unless we have begun by trying to read it as if it was very good and ended by discovering that we were paying the author an undeserved compliment.”
No one has time to read everything, of course. But Lewis’ words keep our judgmental spirit in check. There are many books that I disliked—until I actually read them. There are some books I have read and hated that I suspect might prove to be good books were I to read them again with a gracious spirit. I haven’t always given the books I’ve read a fair chance.
I want to include one other important point that Lewis makes about being a good reader. He clarifies that there is a difference between calling someone a “good reader” and calling her a “serious reader.” Serious can mean “devoted,” but it can also mean “grave” and “humorless.” Lewis proposes we use the term “true readers.”
“Now the true reader reads every work seriously in the sense that he reads it whole-heartedly, makes himself as receptive as he can. But for that very reason he cannot possibly read every work solemnly or gravely. For he will read ‘in the same spirit that the author writ’. What is meant lightly he will take lightly; what is meant gravely, gravely.”
For Lewis, it’s possible to be too serious as a person to be serious as a reader.
Thus far we’ve been talking only about types of readers. But the point of Lewis’ book (An Experiment in Criticism) is actually the means by which we can judge a book to be good. So tomorrow we will let C. S. Lewis answer the question, What makes a book good?