At HarperOne, we have the privilege of publishing more than thirty titles by the late, great C. S. Lewis. While Lewis has many fans, they tend to split into three groups: fans of children’s fantasy books stemming from his seven-volume classic series The Chronicles of Narnia; fans that look to him as a champion of Christian faith through classics like Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and many others; and, finally, fans who see him as an unparalleled literary scholar because of such works as An Experiment in Criticism, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, and others.
It struck me one day that there is one area of Lewis’s expertise that underlies all the others, one that he never addressed directly in any of his books. He was an expert in reading. The reason he could write children’s books as well as scholarly tomes, apologetic Christian works, poetry, novels, and even a science fiction trilogy was because he was so passionately democratic in what he read. Those who read Lewis’s journals or letters are struck by the sheer volume and diversity of his reading. Lewis took to reading voraciously at a young age, to the point where he describes a “perfect day” as one where he was diagnosed as being slightly under the weather so that he could stay in bed reading. Not only did he read, he had strong opinions on what one should read, how often, what role literary tastes and culture should play, why we read, and so on. He argued that one should read good children’s books no matter one’s age, that it is fine for wonder and pleasure to guide what we choose to read, that we should encounter the past as well as other worlds than our own when we read instead of getting stuck in books where everyone thinks the same way as everyone else.
So we have taken all these gems of wisdom regarding the art and joys of spending hours with books and turned them into a new collection called The Reading Life. This new volume is not simply a gift for all three categories of Lewis’s fans but for all those who find delight, joy, and wisdom through books. We put this collection together so everyone can be inspired, amused, and stretched by the insights he gathered throughout his life.
In a passage that originated in his academic work An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis reflects on the gift books provide us as the ability to see the world through another’s eyes, which allows us to transcend the limits of what we can learn through our life alone. He writes,
Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. . . .In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.
Here Lewis perfectly describes the wonder and power of books and their ability to transform us even if the hard work of learning was pioneered by the author.
I felt that power recently upon reading Chris Edmonds’s new book No Surrender in which he recounts how a history report by his daughter unearthed things he never knew about his father. For Chris, his father, Roddie Edmonds, had been a loving, humble man who seldom talked about his war experience and lived an ordinary, unremarkable life. Only after his father passed away and Chris’s daughter was researching a report on her grandfather did Chris discover that his father was a decorated hero who courageously and selflessly saved the lives of the Jewish soldiers under his command.
For Chris, seeing how his father was a true hero revealed that all of us with more ordinary lives are still called to be heroes when the time of testing comes. While Chris’s inspiring story of these discoveries is unique, it is now possible for all of us to gain by its wisdom. And that is the promise and joy of “the reading life.”