The experience of reading

Opening doors and windows


I love reading and C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite authors, even if I found some of his essays exhausting. He wants to give clarity to his speech and speaks with acuity, introducing distinctions in the multiple meanings that occur in certain words or concepts. His desire to achieve clear and distinct ideas can be overwhelming. This explains, in part, why I have read his book The Reading Experience (Alba Editorial, 2000) in fits and starts. I started reading it a few years ago, put it down because I collapsed, until, finally, I returned to it in these last few weeks and finished it with some effort. Delight, in some sections, the most; tedium, in others, the least.

The book investigates reading from the experience of the reader of literary works, but a reader observed from the box, by none other than Lewis. It focuses on the reading modes of the bad reader to highlight, instead, the best modes of the good reader. For example, the bad reader uses the book to pass some time and wallow in the facts. The good reader receives the book, it is an attitude of listening, he lets the text speak to him to discover the rhythm, the melody, and the aroma of the book as long as it is a poiema, that is, something done, “that because of its beauty sound as well as by balance and contrast, and by the integrated multiplicity of its successive parts, it is an object d’art, something endowed with a form capable of arousing intense pleasure” (p. 133).

In a literary reading, Lewis says, “what we seek is an expansion of our being. We want to be more than what we are. By nature, each of us sees the world from one point of view (…) [But] we also want to see through other eyes, imagine with other imaginations, feel with other hearts. We are not satisfied with being Leibnizian monads. We want windows. Literature, in its aspect of logos, is a series of windows and even doors” (p. 137). Good literature has the ability to expand our world, inward, showing us folds of the personal being and outward, opening us to the knowledge of the various turns that the human adventure takes over time and crossing different cultures.

“Therefore, Lewis continues to point out, reading well, without being essentially a sentimental, moral or intellectual activity, shares something of the three. In love, we leave ourselves to enter another person. In the moral sphere, every act of justice or charity requires that we put ourselves in the place of another person and, therefore, that we put aside our particular interests. When we understand something we discern the facts as they are” (p. 138). The literary experience that follows these directions, therefore, broadens our interests, puts us in an attitude of departure. It invites us to meet many human types without ceasing to be ourselves. Reading well, then, as Viktor Frankl states, is a sample of the human being’s capacity for self-transcendence, we gain in depth and breadth.

Having the experience of good literature is the best defense against bad literature. The classics educate good taste and have passed the test of time. Fortunately, it continues to be written with mastery and beauty. There are good readings, let’s hope there is no shortage of good readers.