Sunday, October 2, 2011

Just Like C. S. Lewis

Reading Surprised by Joy is informative, moving, inspiring, and fun. In the book, Lewis mostly tells two well-related stories: the story of how he became educated, and the story of how he became a Christian. And I love reading about both. He describes English schools so vividly, I feel like Thursday Next jumping into the world of the book. Of course, part of me wants to jump back out of the horrid schools, but I'm fascinated with the stories of the good English schools where a boy could learn Latin and Greek, classic literature, the art of dialectic, and (ideally) the manners of a gentleman. His theological journey, too, instructs and delights as he tells of changing from childish Christian to dabbler in the occult, from occultist to romantic, from romantic to atheist, and then through moralist, absolutist, and theist to Christian. But I have a third reason to love this book: reading it allows me to sustain for a few days the illusion that C. S. Lewis and I are just alike.

Early in the book, we find that Lewis grew up in a house full of books and had permission to read them all and, after his brother left for school, plenty of leisure time in which to do it. My parents' house wasn't exactly full of books, but they bought me all the books I wanted and had one bookcase full of treasures of their own, and I was allowed to read any of them. Lewis felt clumsy because of a lack of a joint in each thumb, and because of this deficiency, he disliked playing sports and turned toward a quiet life of reading and contemplation. I, too, feel clumsy because of fingers that don't bend, and I, too, give a lot of credit to that "defect" for steering me to an academic life. Lewis was enamored of a season. His was autumn, mine is winter. Lewis loved learning but hated being at school, even a good school, and for the rest of his life resented the way his schools held him back from learning what he was capable of. Click the tab marked "The Project" to read about my very similar experience. As I've become older, I've grown grown to love many of the books Lewis loved: the novels of Anthony Trollope, essays by Chesterton, Dante's Divine Comedy, Plato's dialogs, and Boswell's Life of Johnson, for instance. And as Lewis became older and became a Christian, he came to see how religious Pagans like Plato and Aeschylus have spiritual insights to teach Christians. In all these ways, we are very similar.

But, alas, the illusion only lasts so long. In many ways I'm not like Lewis at all. For instance, while he spent his childhood reading Gulliver's Travels and Shakespeare, I spent mine reading comics and -- oh, why was I born in the twentieth century! -- "children's versions" of classics. I had a children's version of the Bible, of Gulliver, of Robinson Crusoe. I even had -- and here's where the foolishness of the whole twentieth-century "educational" movement becomes clear -- a children's version of The Wizard of Oz. The book was written explicitly for children. Why, only a few decades later, did children need a simplified version? My two main categories of literature merged in the comics called Illustrated Classics. I remember one day looking at the order form on the back of one of these with my dad. When he asked me which ones I'd like to have, I named at least twenty, and then I asked him how many of them I could order. "All of them," he said. "No, really, Dad. How many?" "Every one that you named." I look back on it now and think about 20 comics times 12 cents. It was only $2.40 plus 50 cents for shipping, but my dad seemed impossibly generous to me at the time. My parents really got me all the books I wanted, so I feel like Lewis again.

But here's another way we're not alike. I have published one scholarly book that gets bought occasionally and has been used a few times in classes, mostly ones that I have taught. But after up to eighty years, all of Lewis's professional books are still in print and still used in university classes. Come to think of it, no one is like C. S. Lewis in that regard.

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