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I am a part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades For ever and for ever when I move.

Month: August 2013

The Narnian

I’ve just finished The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis by Alan Jacobs. The subtlety of this passage delights me:

In Surprised by Joy, he [C.S. Lewis] looks back at his younger self and sees someone whose interest in philosophy was less than serious—indeed, less than truly philosophical. Even some years later, when he was actually teaching philosophy, he was having lunch with [Owen] Barfield and a pupil named Griffiths when he casually referred to philosophy as a “subject.” “‘It wasn’t a subject to Plato,’ said Barfield, ‘it was a way.’ The quiet but fervent agreement of Griffiths, and the quick glance of understanding between these two, revealed to me my own frivolity.”

(The quotation is from Surprised by Joy, though I didn’t catch that the first time around.)

The Narnian is the probably the best biography that can be written about Lewis, who was clearly a private man, and who led a compartmentalized life. The documentary evidence allows all of the interesting questions to be raised but not answered, viz., the reasons for his conversion to Christianity, his relationship with Mrs. Moore, the reasons for his marriage to Joy Davidman. More or less the only judgment of Lewis that we can reach from the book is that he successfully guarded his privacy. The quality of the prose is very good; Jacobs is a professor of English. The literary insights are very helpful. The organization is more topical than chronological, so I at least am left with uneasy recollections of what happened when, but it’s not certainly not clear to me that narrating events in chronological order would have been an improvement.The last chapter can be skipped.

A final oddity: Lewis was staunchly anti-Freudian. Nevertheless, he himself lost his mother at an early age, had a terrible relationship with his father, and then got into an (almost certainly) sexual relationship with a woman twenty years his senior, whom he eventually came to call “Mother”. Yeah, no place for Mr. Freud’s theories here…

Reflections on a discipline

In late 2009, I became convicted of my habit of starting far more books than I ever finished. This had gone on for years, but around that time I decided to do something about it. My first resolution was to finish reading all of the books that I had started since Spring 2009 — when we had moved internationally, which made a clean starting point. This took me about ten months, as I recall, and involved plowing through some books that I had started too casually (memorably, Homilies on the Gospel of John by Chrysostom). I then made the resolution that I would allow myself one personal book and one professional book at a time, except in compelling circumstances. I permitted myself the Bible, of course, and whatever books were necessary for language-learning. I also read books to my sons, of course, and those don’t count.

It has now been four years, and I have kept to this discipline. I have deviated once or twice, for instance when a library book I placed on reserve suddenly came due, or if I had to read a book for a course. There have been three or four such exceptions over the four years.

A quadrennial assessment. Advantages:

  • I am far more disciplined in my reading habits now, which is wonderful. The discipline eliminated my old habit of starting books and not finishing them, or only finishing them after a delay. (I remember several false starts on The Count of Monte Cristo in 2009.)
  • Since reading a book is now a commitment, I am much more selective in what I read. I have a spreadsheet in which I record books I have read, and books that I want to read (I currently have 151 on the list). When I am coming to the end of a book, I begin to think of what I am in the mood to read. I can intentionally choose a work from a particular author, a work of light fiction, etc. The discipline helps me to make an intentional choice, though.
  • There are many books that I would not have finished but for this discipline. Joseph Frank’s 1000-page Dostoyevsky: A writer in his time comes to mind. It was an excellent book, but if my fancies had determined my reading schedule, I do not believe I would have finished it. Many of George MacDonald’s works require similar commitment. The same goes for Homer and Virgil.
  • I am much more particular about what I read, since reading is more of a commitment. I become almost angry at a poorly written book, since it is such a waste of my time. I remember being angry through most of Dracula. This only makes me more selective about what I read, however, which is a net benefit.

Disadvantages:

  • Some books simply do not inspire, and that creates a stoppage. I believe it was nearly a year ago that I began reading a book on Greek discourse. The consequence of not finishing that book is that I haven’t read any other professional book in the last year.
  • If I only have “heavy” books to read, then I find that when I am tired, instead of reading my book, I read lesser things anyway. For instance, I might read only light articles. Or I might fritter away the evening on the internet. It’s not a small irony that I have filled evenings with Failblog instead of yielding to the temptation of light fiction.
  • There are books I might read if I didn’t have to read them all the way through. I have read far less from the Church Fathers over the last four years than I would have expected. City of God is an unimaginable commitment at this point.

For me, both the advantages and disadvantages are compelling. On the whole I don’t doubt that it’s been a positive change. I need to think about some safety valve for the times I don’t want to read something substantive. I also did fiddle with the discipline at one point by deciding to read only one volume of the Thousand and One Nights, which ended up being a rather tedious work, and that might be applied more generally, e.g., to City of God.

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