C.S. Lewis gained acclaim as a children’s author for his classic series The Chronicles of Narnia. He also gained acclaim for his popular apologetics, including such works as Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters. What is more, he gained acclaim as a science fiction writer for his Ransom Trilogy. Furthermore, he gained acclaim for his scholarly work in Medieval and Renaissance literature with The Allegory of Love and A Preface to Paradise Lost. Many writers have their fleeting moment of fame before their books become yesterday’s child—all the rage and then has-been. Remarkably, Lewis’s books in all of these areas have remained in print for 70, 80, and 90 years. Over the years, the print runs have grown.
1. Lewis was not English. He was Irish. Because of his long association with Oxford University, and later with Cambridge, many people assume he was English. When he first went to school in England as a boy, he had a strong Irish accent. Both the students and the headmaster made fun of young Lewis, and he hated the English in turn. It would be many years before he overcame his prejudice against the English.
2. Lewis could not play team sports. Perhaps it would be better to say that he could not succeed at team sports. One of the features of human anatomy that separates us from the lower primates is the two-jointed thumb, which helped us enormously in the development of technology and civilization. Lewis and his brother Warnie had only one joint in their thumbs which left them hopeless at throwing, catching, or hitting balls. As a result of his failure on the playing field, young Lewis was subjected to ridicule and abuse from the other students at school and made to feel unworthy to draw breath.
3. Lewis was a shy man. In spite of his great skill at debate and his mastery of the platform in holding an audience of hundreds in the palm of his hand, Lewis was shy in everyday encounters with other people he did not know. His enormous publishing success came in spite of his inability to put himself forward instead of from any effort on his part to market himself.
4. Lewis gave away the royalties from his books. Though he had only a modest salary as a tutor at Magdalen College, Lewis set up a charitable trust to give away whatever money he received from his books. Having given away his royalties when he first began this practice, he was startled to learn that the government still expected him to pay taxes on the money he had earned!
5. Lewis never expected to make any money from his books. He was sure they would all be out of print by the time he died. He advised one of his innumerable correspondents that a first edition of The Screwtape Letters would not be worth anything since it would be a used book. He advised not paying more than half the original price. They now sell for over $1200.
6. Lewis was instrumental in Tolkien’s writing of The Lord of the Rings. Soon after they became friends in the 1920s, J. R. R. Tolkien began showing Lewis snatches of a massive myth he was creating about Middle Earth. When he finally began writing his “new Hobbit” that became The Lord of the Rings, he suffered from bouts of writer’s block that could last for several years at a time. Lewis provided the encouragement and the prodding that Tolkien needed to get through these dry spells.
7. Lewis had a favorite kind of story. Lewis loved Norse mythology and science fiction, but his favorite kind of story was the journey to the world’s end on a great quest to gain that most valuable prize, the great unattainable thing. He found this story as a teenager in the medieval story of the quest for the Holy Grail. It is the plot of Spenser’s The Fairie Queene and of George MacDonald’s Phantastes. It would be a plot he incorporated into The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Pilgrim’s Regress.
8. Lewis earned two degrees at Oxford. Lewis had planned to have a career as a philosopher, teaching at Oxford University. When he could not get a job upon graduation, he remained at Oxford an additional year and did a second degree in English literature. He could complete the degree in only one year because he had read the books in the English syllabus for his pleasure reading when he was a teenager. In the end, he taught English literature instead of philosophy.
9. Lewis’s first book was a collection of poetry he wrote as a teenager. Before he planned to be a philosopher, the teenage Lewis hoped to become a great poet. He wrote poetry with the hope of publishing his work and gaining fame. He returned to England after being injured in France during World War I and published his collection as Spirits in Bondage under the pen name of Clive Hamilton.
10. Lewis was very athletic. Even though he hated team sports throughout his life, Lewis was addicted to vigorous exercise. He loved to take 10-, 15-, and 20-mile rapid tromps across countryside, but especially over rugged hills and mountains. He loved to ride a bicycle all over Oxfordshire. He loved to swim in cold streams and ponds. He loved to row a boat. He kept up a vigorous regimen until World War II interrupted his life with all of the new duties and obligations he accepted to do his bit for the war effort.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.
“Why do you only read one book at a time?” my eight-year-old daughter asked me recently.
It isn’t true. I have piles of books stacked around the house, some homework for my writing projects, others written by friends, a few I have the best intentions for but just can’t seem to finish. She’s right, though, that there is usually one book whose call is strongest, and when we read side-by-side for pleasure, that’s the one I grab. I’m a slow reader, so my daughter has time to get attached to my choices. Three years later, she never fails to point out Lisa Ko’s The Leavers in bookstores, like it’s my long-lost friend, which, in a way, it is.
I have limited time to read usually—on the train, if I’m lucky enough to get a seat, or a few pages in bed before my eyelids grow heavy. Anyone who’s ever written a book knows you can accomplish great things via incrementalism, but reading slowly can feel like a grind. This year I’ve been sticking to shortish books that I can fly through. But recently I had some extra time and knew it was my chance to start Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, a multi-generational epic about Koreans living in Japan. I needed a good run of hours to devote to its 497 pages, and finally I had it. My daughter fingered the book’s shiny cover, tracing the mountains and valleys hidden in the folds of the woman’s hanbok.
“I want to read one of your books,” she said, eyeing the shelves in my bedroom.
I looked up, thinking of all the sex and violence housed there, subjects my girl will need to understand eventually, but slowly and carefully and not yet. Then I saw it: the Anne of Green Gables series. Last year I’d asked my mom to ship the books to me. I’d wanted my daughter to have those stories about the plucky red-haired orphan sent to live with a bachelor and his spinster sister on Prince Edward Island. But there’d been no space for them in her bedroom, where every horizontal surface is crowded with Ivy and Bean and Dr. Seuss and Star Wars and Roald Dahl.
“Those ones,” I said to her, pointing at the eight-book series nestled among the other Ms on my shelves. My daughter would need a chair to reach them, and I could see it was this fact—not my personal endorsement of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classics, frequently and freely offered over the preceding months—that sold her on them.
My aunt gave me Anne of Green Gables, the first in the series, in 1982 (“Hope you enjoy reading this book as much as I did more than 20 years ago!” inscribed on the inside flap), and I remember finding the book one summer afternoon as I lay, bored out of my mind, on the floor of my room. Its green cover seemed to twinkle at me from under the bed. I don’t remember how it ended up there in the first place, but I can hazard a guess.
In the four years since my daughter first learned to read, I’ve been hoping to teach her the joys of reading for pleasure. No one wants to be nagged into enjoying themselves or doing something that’s good for them. Instead, I turn off the TV, grab the dog and a blanket, and make a nest so cozy the FOMO sucks in my daughter. You’d be surprised how often it works. But even for a lifelong reader like me—with the responsibilities of middle age: the emails to send, checkups to schedule, sitters to book, pages to write, and bills to pay—it can be difficult to access anything like joy. Contentedness? Sure. Admiration for an author’s achievement and the gratitude that comes with having your world increased and your knowledge deepened? Of course. But the joy in discovering a book that’s too good to resist? That’s been rare—until I started reading with my daughter.
To a second grader, reading is like throwing confetti in the air and getting back music or diamonds; sometimes, on a bad day, only dust motes. My girl isn’t a purist like her mother. I prefer the book as a physical object, novels preferably, the bound pages humming with secrets. But she’ll read anything: comics and graphic novels, chapter books, e-books on her Kindle (she has one; I don’t), engineering manuals, visual encyclopedias, books her dad and I made for her, stapled-together pages she’s started writing and will likely never finish, stories she’s started on my laptop. In the early days, I thought it all a performance, a child’s idea of what reading was supposed to be. I didn’t know then that pretending (to read, to write, to cook, to dance) was the beginning of the thing itself.
It’s incredible that children are so good at beginnings because so often the difficulty with reading books is surviving the beginning. It’s a huge investment for an adult to make—let alone an 8-year-old—to learn about a whole new set of people and places. Somehow it’s worse if the last book you read was one you loved. You have to start over in completely unfamiliar territory and trust that you will get your bearings, that you will fall in love twice (or three times, or a hundred times) and have fun again.
My daughter opted to read Anne of Green Gables to herself at first, slowly, diligently, but I could see she was starting to get bogged down by its rhapsodic passages. One Sunday, I rounded up the dog and the blanket and I offered to read a few pages to her. She was tired from her morning’s adventures, or she never would have acquiesced. As I read aloud, I grew nervous. I knew she’d be on safe ground once Anne meets her bosom friend, Diana, but first we had to outlast the buggy ride from the train station with Anne’s new guardian, Matthew. What would my city kid make of all this rapture over ponds and blossoms: “a glory of many shifting hues—the most spiritual shadings of crocus and rose and ethereal green”? She would need all the ballast I could muster, and I gave it my all: varying my tone and volume, telegraphing true delight. Still, the journey felt as if it might go on forever, with nothing but a mere mention of Diana’s house on the other side of Barry’s Pond. Even Anne knows it’s a drab name for a pond, so she rechristens it the Lake of Shining Waters. “Yes, that is the right name for it,” she tells Matthew.
“I know because of the thrill. When I hit on a name that suits exactly it gives me a thrill. Do things ever give you a thrill?” Matthew ruminated.
So did we. We pondered the word thrill until it almost lost all meaning.
When Matthew starts to point to Green Gables, Anne interrupts him and begs to be allowed to guess which house will be her new home.
They were on the crest of a hill. The sun had set some time since, but the landscape was still clear in the mellow afterlight. To the west a dark church spire rose up against a marigold sky. Below was a little valley and beyond a long, gently-rising slope with snug farmsteads scattered along it. From one to another the child’s eyes darted, eager and wistful. At last they lingered on one away to the left, far back from the road, dimly white with blossoming trees in the twilight of the surrounding woods. Over it, in the stainless southwest sky, a great crystal-white star was shining like a lamp of guidance and promise.
My daughter was rapt, becalmed by the crystal-white star. Now we had it, that swoosh of momentum that carries you past the letters on the page, straight into the heart of a story, like the wave in the painting that lifts the Narnia kids out of England and onto the deck of the Dawn Treader. My daughter and I were both swept up in Anne’s reverie, as charmed by this dreamy orphan as silent Matthew is, as I’d been when I first read the book during the Reagan years. The magic held. We flew to the end of the chapter.
“Keep going or stop here?” I asked.
“Keep going,” she said.
We read five chapters like that, coming to a delicate little cliffhanger, scanning the title of the next chapter (“Anne’s History,” “Marilla Makes Up Her Mind”), deciding to go on.
And then, as often happens on a really good reading day, my daughter rolled over and slipped into a delicious nap.
Now it was my turn. I picked up my copy of Pachinko. The paperback was heavy in my hands. I was more than a little afraid that it would defeat me with its length or its sterling reputation as a must-read 10 years in the making. What if I could only read the same two pages over and over again until I, too, fell asleep? What if I didn’t love it or admire it? Or worse, what if I felt like a failure as a writer? What if I felt like giving up? It had been a rough year, and I wasn’t sure I could handle the disappointment.
But two pages in, here was Hoonie, the beloved and only surviving son of an old fisherman and his wife, “this steady, beating organ” his parents shared. Here was the matchmaker, whose “black flinty eyes darted intelligently,” correctly tallying the family’s fortunes from the stacks of rice on the shelves and chickens in the yard. Here was Hoonie’s mother, salting radish “with a flick of her thick wrist,” careful to guard her emotions. And, at last, here was the promised bride, Yangjin, “the last of four girls and the easiest to unload because she was too young to complain, and she’d had the least to eat.” As I got to the end of each chapter, the novel’s gentle pangs urged me forward, until I forgot my to-do list, forgot myself, forgot everything but the warmth of the sleeping girl next to me. I had my own momentum now, born happily aloft to a land and a time far, far away.
Image: Nong Vang