First, no, I did not rip off Nathan’s book review post idea. I actually finished this book today and was thinking about writing a… well, synopsis. I don’t call this a review because, honestly, it’s something of a classic and I can’t quite justify the implications of the word “review.” More like “here’s a book you’ve probably never heard of and I recommend.”
I will admit that reading Nathan’s review got me motivated to actually write something. I have the “I should blog about this!” moment every time I finish a book or movie or anime, and then I never do. (Mostly because it will end up written off as a “Dylan anime” or “Dylan book” or “Dylan movie” anyway, so why bother?)
People who know me will be shocked that I actually read, because it’s pretty well-known that I don’t. Actually, I suppose that’s sort of a mischaracterization of my reading habits: I read, but very rarely, and only books I really want to read. I’m sort of a perfectionist about book choice, so I don’t read anything that I don’t think I’m going to complete. And I know the chances of me actually sticking with a book (or game, or series, or whatever) long enough to complete it are slim to none. So I’m very picky, and tend to read books by authors I already know I like.*
Anyway, I should probably explain how I got around to reading this book. I’ve read through several C.S. Lewis books over the past… oh, probably year or two. I picked up Mere Christianity at McKay’s a few years back and really liked it. I picked up The Screwtape Letters a bit later, and similarly enjoyed it. Still later, after seeing them referenced in an online discussion, I read through Till We Have Faces (highly recommended if you like fantasy) and The Great Divorce (more fantastic than fantasy). I recommended The Great Divorce to my sister (I can’t really explain why, but it seemed like her type of book), and in the course of showing her where it was in Borders picked up The Problem of Pain (also highly recommended if you want to get philosophical… or want a good argument why theistic evolution is not teh devil) and this book more or less on a whim. So there you have it. And no, I’ve never read any of the Narnia books.
What I find really interesting about Lewis’s work is his sense of pragmatism and honesty. There’s also something assuring about reading a book that puts into words things you’ve thought. And given the polarizing opinions people have about religion (and more specifically, Christianity), Lewis seems to tread a very rational middle ground. His logic isn’t always airtight, but it’s clearly present and it’s not antagonistic. He says a lot of things that would make religion more palatable to those who strongly disagree with it; conversely, I think a lot of Christians in America today would strongly disagree with some of his conclusions if they read anything more than Narnia. (To my discredit, I have a very morbid curiosity about the weird things people believe, so I may not have an accurate picture of what constitutes mainstream belief in either case.)
But none of that actually has much to do with this book, and I don’t want to get hung up on summarizing it. There’s actually quite a bit that’s applicable to modern life, or at least the geek subculture.
The book itself is an account of Lewis’s conversion from a nominal Christianity, to atheism, and then back to Christianity. This isn’t a tearjerking personal testimony (“As for what we commonly call Will, and what we commonly call Emotion,” Lewis writes, “I fancy these usually talk too loud, protest too much, to be quite believed, and we have a secret suspicion that the great passion or the iron resolution is partly a put-up job.”1) In fact, it’s mostly non-religious details about his early life, and it’s occasionally very philosophical. I don’t mean the common use of the term philosophical where a person rambles on about supposedly weighty matters, I mean discusses actual schools of philosophical thought. As a business/CIS major who decied to take Logic for his philosophy course requirement, it’s quite over my head. It’s also a product of 1950’s Ireland/England, so there’s a lot of context taken for granted.
Even if you don’t agree with his conclusions or his beliefs, there’s something fascinating about watching someone examine their own life. It’s a sort of vicarious experience: you identify with them in the faults you share, and you discover new faults that you’ve completely overlooked. And then there are things you would never dream of thinking of as wrong–which you might attribute to going with the flow, or playing the game, or trying to fit in–that Lewis berates himself for. Still, you cannot witness someone else’s introspection unscathed.
There’s also some measure of frustration involved; Lewis wrote this with decades of hindsight that, as a 27-year-old, I just don’t have right now.
Central to the book is Lewis’s encounters with the sensation of Joy. He first encounters this in Norse mythology; there is something he sees in the imagery and the “Northernness” of the epics that is unattainable and indescribable, yet something he desires. It’s something outside of himself. What’s fascinating is that, the more he tries to recapture this sensation by immersing himself in the books and music, the more he realizes it’s impossible to recapture. The more he tries to probe the sensation through introspection, the faster he loses it. Joy, as he calls it, is not controllable, nor is it in the object so much as it is the desire.
There’s something oddly familiar about this and his other descriptions of literature. Maybe it’s because of DragonCon and AWA being so fresh on my mind, but there’s something about this that reminds me of fandom. Lewis had his literature; we have science fiction and anime and comics. Whatever it is that hooks us, it’s often so strong that we make it a part of who we are. But even as we chase it down by buying merchandise or rewatching or rereading the material or learning every bit of trivia, we’re never going to fully capture it because we’re chasing the incidentals.
To completely switch gears, we geeks are also a sarcastic and opinionated lot. Seriously, count the number of times you’ve said that something sucks or laughed at people who like something. (You can make this a drinking game if you’d like.)
So it’s an eye-opening experience to watch Lewis talk about how, as a young man, he was surrounded by people who didn’t share his taste in literature. (Even among geeks, I have this problem myself–as will probably be evidenced by people reading this blog post and saying to themselves, “You seriously read that? WTF?”) As soon as he entered school and discovered that his tastes were actually considered good literature, this changed completely–he discovered there were more of his kind, and they carried some measure of respect. And good taste meant, naturally, a sense of superiority. I think you see where I’m going with this.
I have, by the by, made this quote my signature on TVGA, just to challenge people who mock my enjoyment of “wuss rock” and crappy anime:
“The moment good taste knows itself, some of its goodness is lost. Even then, however, it is not necessary to take the further step downward of despising the ‘philistines’ who do not share it.”2
There’s probably more I could expound on, but honestly, there’s so much I forget about this book. In trying to write a blog post about it, I feel like I should read it a second time just to take it in. I wouldn’t even say it was the most fascinating or weighty of Lewis’s books. But the narrative was compelling, and if you’re looking there are a lot of very surprising little conclusions and details.
1 p. 237
2 p. 104
* Also, given the length of this post, it should be said that when I read something, I read and enjoy the hell out of it. There is something to say for perfectionism and attention to detail.