A Letter on Reading – In War Time

Frontispiece to The Antiquary by Walter Scott, 1893, Public Domain

I have for some time wanted to write a blog post on a quaint and encouraging passage in one of Lewis’s letters about the way he read books – in particular, non-fiction.  One might be disappointed with my timing, as I post this in the first days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  It may seem trivial to do so.  Yet, I do so in the spirit of Lewis’s essay, “Learning in War Time,” and, indeed, in the spirit of the letter to which I refer.  The letter was written to Arthur Greeves during February, 1932, while Japan was wrapping up an invasion of Manchuria, and Lewis expresses his worry about his brother Warnie because he was not far from the conflict, being stationed in Shanghai.  Indeed, his worry forced him to read the newspapers – something he normally would not do!  Of Warnie, he says, “I wish to goodness he had never gone out there.”  If Lewis writes about the reading of books while worrying about his brother in a troubled part of the world, I think he would think it a fit thing for us to reflect on what he writes, while we have concerns in our own time about the peace of the nations and the safety of people for whom we care.

There is another aspect of this letter that may have a personal relevance to us these days: Lewis had been laid up for over a fortnight with the flu.  He refers to his illness as the reason  why he had been so slow to respond to the last letter of his good friend.  Apparently, Arthur had asked Lewis if he had read any of the works by Naomi Mitchison.  Ms. Mitchison was a prolific contemporary writer of historical fiction with a universally acknowledged talent for engaging the reader with her characters while maintaining a high degree of historic accuracy.  Lewis says he had only read her Black Sparta and gives his opinion, which echoes that of many: “she is a wonderful writer.”

Next, Lewis is glad that Arthur has started to read the Chroniques of Jean Froissart – a history of 14th century Europe, written by a contemporary.  Lewis is famous for his ability to remember what he had read, and he had read Froissart.  But Lewis, much to our surprise, when trying to recall the name of a character in Froissart, calls him “Sir Thing-um-a-bob” and then says “(you see you are not the only one who forgets things).”  

It is here that Lewis tells us how he goes about reading such a book as Froissart.  It is classic Mortimer Adler – reading with a pencil:  

To enjoy a book like that thoroughly I find I have to treat it as a sort of hobby and set about it seriously.  I begin by making a map on one of the end leafs: then I put in a genealogical tree or two.  Then I put a running headline at the top of each page; finally I index at the end all the passages I have for any reason underlined.  I often wonder-considering people enjoy themselves developing  photos or making scrap-books-why so few people make a hobby of their reading in this way.  Many an otherwise dull book which I had to read have I enjoyed in this way, with a fine-nibbed pen in my hand: one is making something all the time and a book so read acquires the charm of a toy without losing that of a book.

People will often refer to Lewis’s marginalia in his books, but this is more than simply noting reactions to a text or associated thoughts.  This is a method of mastering the content of the book.  The book is turned into a project with a view to producing one’s own secondary work, to which one may refer in the future for reference or recall of its contents.  Of course, for a book-lover, this kind of thing is just fun to do.  It makes the book doubly satisfying – or perhaps, in the case of a bad book, just satisfying; some good has been gained out of it after all, if only some practice.  Such projects can vary depending on the genre of the book.  Taking The Screwtape Letters for example, I have found it profitable to give each letter a short title – using words from the chapter – and then on a leaf in the front or back of the book, list the letters with their titles and starting page numbers, thus creating a very helpful index.  I have used this index often to help me find a particular letter to which I want to return.

I bring this paragraph to our attention, not only because it is instructive and encouraging for readers generally, but because there is a bit of insight into Lewis here.  I have already referred to Lewis’s ability to remember what he had read.  Yes, indeed, he had a remarkable memory, but is it not evident here that he worked on the books he read?  May we not conclude that such effort would have gone a long way toward his recollection of the work?  He had expended some sweat on the book and made its contents his own.  That had to be a boost to an already strong – although imperfect [thing-um-a-bob!] – memory.  I think there is an example here for us to follow.

I cannot leave this letter without mentioning two last things.  First, he recommends more reading of Sir Walter Scott, and how he would read The Antiquary over and over again because he loved it so much.  If you will read The Antiquary, with Lewis in mind, you will understand why.  Secondly, Lewis mentions a principle of Christian prayer.  He says he cannot pray for any change to be made in Arthur without realizing that the same change needs to be made in himself.  This helps Lewis to see himself “in the same boat” with all other Christians and helps him keep a humble attitude.  With Lewis, as we seek to be better readers, let us seek to be better Christians – and especially in this hour remember those who are in the same boat with us.

C. S. Lewis’s February, 1932, letter to Arthur Greeves may be found in The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume II (New York, HarperCollins Publishers, 2004).

Please note that the content and viewpoints of Rev. Beckmann are his own and are not necessarily those of the C.S. Lewis Foundation. We have not edited his writing in any substantial way and have permission from him to post his content.

The Rev. David Beckmann has for many years been involved in both the Church and education. He helped to start a Christian school in South Carolina, tutored homeschoolers, and has been adjunct faculty for both Covenant College and the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. He founded the C.S. Lewis Society of Chattanooga in 2005. He has spoken extensively on C.S Lewis, and was the Director of the C.S Lewis Study Centre at The Kilns from 2014-2015. He is currently a Regional Representative for the C.S. Lewis Foundation in Chattanooga.

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