Goodreads: An Experiment in Criticism
C. S. Lewis proposes that we can define books as good or bad based on how they are read. To do this, he differentiates between the “literary” and the “unliterary,” or readers who enter fully into the work without preconceptions and readers who do not.
C. S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism challenges readers to be better. His argument posits that “it might be plausible to define a good book as a book which is read in one way, and a bad book as a book which is read in another.” To do this, he defines the “few” and the “many” or the “unliterary” and the “literary.” Presumably readers want Lewis to count them among the “literary!”
Lewis’s thesis rests on the argument that what both groups mean by “liking” a book or “liking” to read is very different. The unliterary do not reread books and “turn to [reading] as a last resort.” The literary, however, reread “great” books multiple times, experience books as life-changing, and are so caught up in their reading that they both spend time reflecting on their favorite passages and talking about books to others. So far, so good. Many readers would probably see themselves among the “few.”
As Lewis’s argument goes on, however, it becomes more challenging. The unliterary, he maintains, “use” books instead of receiving them. The book is a jumping off point for their own ideas and fantasies. They do not receive the ideas of the author by entering the book without preconceptions. For this reason, Lewis believes that the unliterary prefer fast-paced narratives and even poor prose–the prose cannot get in the way of the use they wish to make of the book. Erotica may come to mind here as a type of book people use, as Lewis agrees, but he is far more concerned with the pleasure the literary receive from “success “stories, whether that means they imagine themselves in a romance being wooed by a gentleman caller, or in a rags-to-riches tale achieving wealth and fame. Reading should not, Lewis suggests be about one’s self but should take one out of one’s self.
Lewis’s ultimate argument goes far beyond questioning the intellect of readers; it suggests that reading is a moral act, as well. The literary can enjoy, with the unliterary, “vicarious enjoyment of imagined happiness,” but that is not the only way they read. He imagines reading as a process “described either as an enlargement or as a temporary annihilation of the self.” What a wake-up call! Though many see reading as for entertainment or enjoyment, Lewis’s stance reminds readers that the way they use free time has stakes. They could waste their time, but they also might be missing an opportunity to better themselves, or even actively harming themselves.
Lewis’s book, fittingly, requires readers to approach it just as he argues–without preconceptions. A defensive approach in which a reader prepares to justify their reading habits means that they will likely misread his argument and miss an opportunity to engage self-reflectively with his ideas. But Lewis, as always, strives to be personable as well as concise and clear, making the book feel like a chat with a friend. An Experiment in Criticism is a worthwhile read for any reader.