“In reading I become a thousand men and yet remain myself”

[I]n 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.

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism 141 (1961).

This week I take a break from my series on The Children of Húrin for two distinct reasons: first, to clear my head a little; second, so that my concluding post in that series may roughly coincide with Tolkien reading day, which is March 25. So my subject this week is the above quote from C. S. Lewis, on the immense value of reading.

When you read quotes like this, you almost don’t want to write about them. What else is there to say? Could I ascend so high in praise of reading that I wouldn’t find Lewis in this quote still soaring over my head?  To what depths could I descend in the hard mining of analysis, and not find that Lewis had already arrived yet well below me?  But, since the swan is now silent, the cricket will add his few chirps.

What got me thinking about Lewis on reading was Rachel’s post from yesterday on writing.  For one way to summarize her comments is simply to paraphrase Lewis: In writing I become a thousand characters and yet remain myself.  The distinct value of writing, as against reading, lies in the work it takes to become those characters, to bring them to life: to give bones flesh and blood and breath.  The characters aren’t just given to us.

But the distinct value of reading — if we would read well — lies in the very fact that the characters are given to us.  They come to us as gifts, creatures of other minds.  Precisely for that reason, when first we meet them, they confront us, perplex us, confound us. But if we hang around long enough, we find that through them we see with “a myriad eyes” — and yet it remains we who see.


Posted on March 10, 2012, in Authors, C. S. Lewis, David Mitchel and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Chirp away, my good cricket! If we accomplish nothing else, we create an excuse to quote Lewis and let him be heard again. Our chirping can be his opening act, as it were.

  2. That’s a good observation about the value of writing; I’d never thought to apply Lewis’s observation in the opposite direction.

    I also love the line that precedes the quote you’ve shared: “Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality.”

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