Friday, October 07, 2011

C. S. Lewis' (really) 10 Best Books

This morning, I noticed an article offering a list of C. S. Lewis' 10 Best Books.  The journalist, who looked young, got it all wrong.  Two of the books he listed were not even by Lewis -- one was a collection of his essays (God in the Dock), another a collection of his letters (and the wrong collection, something practical, rather than Volume 2 of The Collected Letters, which is chock full of useless good fun.)  But a great book is great in conception as well as detail: collections of essays or letters by some third party seldom qualify.

Nor did the author include most of Lewis' best stuff. 

So here's the correct list.  Let's do it in David Letterman order.  

(Note: at the end, I'll copy my recent Amazon review of the number 1 book, which like many of Lewis' fans I had overlooked for many years, and have only just read for the first time.  My reviews of most the other books can also be found on Amazon.) 

10. That Hideous Strength.  Yes, it is hideous sometimes -- but I always love a good stew, especially with meaty pieces of truth, characters as unique as carrots, spuds, beans, and cherry tomatoes, swirling in a bubbling chaos of mad-cap apocalypto, spiced with satire and whimsy.

9. Perelandra  Along with Pandora, the best-imagined planet ever.  I love those islands.  And of course the characters, dialogue and philosophy are far better than Avatar.  Even the long-winded conversation on the mountain at the end is starting to grow on me -- I quote it at the end of my dissertation. 

8. Abolition of Man.  Don't skip the appendix, in which Lewis shows that morality is universal, perceptively using Confucius' term "Tao" to describe the moral truth that all humanity shares. 

7. The Last Battle.  OK, all these books are wonderful, and I hate to leave Uncle Albert ("Brandy") off the list.  But there's only room for one Narnia here.  As Emeth would no doubt confess, the Last Battle is NOT really all in Plato.  But there's a splendid feast of mortal pagan and Christian wisdom, hidden in this "children's fantasy," with a good slice of heaven for dessert. 

6. Mere Christianity.  "The Great Sin" chapter alone causes this book to merit inclusion.  It is a silly error of silly atheists to dismiss this book for its apparent simplicity.  (And the many who criticize Lewis' "Liar, Lord, or Lunatic" trillemma for leaving out the possibility that the Gospels are unreliable in what they record of Jesus, should read Lewis' essay, Fernseed and Elephants, which in effect answers this objection.) 

5. Surprised by Joy.  One of the great autobiographies.  Gosippy, profound, heart-wrenching, dark, humorous, real, breathing the air of a well-stocked old country library, with a window to the outside world on the sill of which a little boy has left shoe scruffings.  Lewis' character sketches are, as usual, brilliant.  His description of his conversion touches the heart of many matters.  I even like the title, which is no doubt an inside joke -- he says not a word about a certain Joy Davidman.  He's a little unkind to his father, though. 

4. The Four Loves.  The perfect gift for newlyweds. 

3. The Great Divorce.  Not a self-help manual for the same couple a few years down the road!  This is, rather, the story of a journey from hell to the outskirts of heaven.  It may change how you see the afterlife, but also how you see love and choice in this world.  (A book I found no room for on this list, but also belongs on it, achieves similiar psychological insight: The Screwtape Letters.) 

2. Till We Have Faces.  Lewis ought to have won the Nobel Prize for this book.  A myth, retold, profound, magnificent, and brilliant. 

1. Poetry and Prose in the 16th Century
"Earlier this summer, I visited a place on Mount Rainier I hadn't been to in more than thirty years. It was a splendid day: glaciers towered above clouds, which wafted over ridges rising out of evergreen forests, with waterfalls tumbling down, a cinnamon-phase black bear grubbing for eats on the far bank of a glacial river, deep snow fields, and dozens of kinds of wildflowers sprinkled across the meadows.

"Since my last visit to that spot, I've read almost everything C. S. Lewis had written, in some cases many times -- except for this book.

"It is almost as majestic, in its own way, as the mountain.

"Here's a daunting piece of topographical data: a 92 page bibliography. Lewis takes time to briefly introduce thousands of books in it, often with notes on their quality and what you'll find. Got a couple lifetimes to spare?

"But every trip begins with a single step, and Lewis is walking through a century. He gives a little more weight in this narrative to poets than prose writers, and about as much to the last 20 years of the century, as to the first 80. Not being a scholar of English literature, I found some of the early citations a bit hard to make out -- the language becomes easier for us non-specialists as the century draws on. The "wild flowers" visible on this mountain are snippets of poetry Lewis quotes. The "bears" and other wildlife might be compared to the sometimes scruffy writers, whom he describes with consumate literary skill.

"One of the remarkable qualities of Lewis' work is the variety of genres to which he contributed. Tolkien may have found Narnia glib, but most of us enjoyed it. Till We Have Faces is, I think, better than some Nobel-Prize winning novels. His shorter scholarly works tend to be revolutionary in their insight and beautifully written, but less grand in their ambition. Of course he also did science fiction (fantasy), "letters" (from the devil), and theological / philosophical essays. This book, with its many peaks, reaches above the clouds. In scope and outline majestic, in detail brilliantly observed, whatever else it be, Poetry and Prose in the 16th Century is a great work of scholarship.

"If you don't know anything about 16th Century literature (I didn't) should you read this book? Sure. Don't try to swallow it all in one bite, though. It took me two months to read, 5-15 pages at a time. A lot of it remained over my head; I may have to read a few more of the principles, put a walking stick in the back of my car, and return. I also want to pick up a copy of Arcadia."


Jason Pratt said...

All hail the OHEL! {g}


David B Marshall said...

Jason: Is that an opinion, or just a (pretty good) joke? I am curious about your views on the list. Have you read the aforementioned monster?

Jason Pratt said...

Yes, it's one of my favorites. I binged on his literary criticism books and article-collections a few years back, and saved his "Oxford History of English Language" entry for last.

Lewis wasn't at all fond of working on it, even though he loved the topic, and would joke that he had to work on the "Oh hell". (punning for OHEL--the 'official' abbreviation for the series was something else, of course, although I don't recall what.)

You probably knew that already, but I thought I should explain it for other readers, as it's an incredibly geeky Lewis-fanboy joke. {g}

So yes, I would have put it near the top; although frankly I consider the second edition of Miracles: A Preliminary Study to be #1--a vastly more influential book on a more important topic that featured substantial revision from Lewis and a systematic metaphysical argument that few if any other apologists have ever attempted. (Many "salad bar" apologetic works, yes: a chapter on this and on that argument etc. But very few progressing systematic metaphysical arguments.)

People will be rightly debating M:aPS (and working to improve on it) into the next century. Few will remember (or appreciate) his contribution to the OHEL, despite being a stunning and (in its own way) much more comprehensive work.

I have occasionally speculated that the reason Lewis didn't follow up his original 1940s release of M:aPS with a systematic analysis of scriptural data, which M:aPS essentially prepares for, is because he was burned out from working on the OHEL.

(Although his concluding chapters to M:aPS do feature what amounts to a summary of MacDonald's On the Miracles of Our Lord--and which are, in fact, the "preliminary study" to which all the other chapters are leading up! Lewis considered those final chapters to be his main yet still preliminary argument; the preceding chapters, which is what critics mostly debate on pro or con, were not even the preliminary study yet. {g})


David B Marshall said...

Jason: I'm impressed! The few, the proud -- those who have traveled to "O Hell" and come back to tell the story! (Hercules, Aineus, Dante, Tang Taizong.)

The list, though, is "best," not "most influential." You may have read an article I once wrote -- "How the Brothers Grimm Overthrew the Evil Empire?" Mere Christianity was one of the links in that chain. Top that.

Miracles does, no doubt, belong high on this list, though. I haven't read it for a while, and out of sight, out of mind. It was probably a big influence on my thinking about "miracles" and "magic." I'll have to take a look at the McDonald book you refer to. Great suggestion.

Jason Pratt said...

Well, I'm pretty sure MC has been more influential than MaPS (seeing as it's written in a more popular style), but I wouldn't say its content is superior to MaPS overall. So if we're leaving out influentiality, I'd say MaPS still has to rank higher than MC (if not outright replace it on the list). {g}

In terms of quality, I'd put Lewis' amazing stab at Bunyonesque allegory, The Pilgrim's Regress, a tad above THS. The first religious book Lewis ever wrote, and completed in a blinding two-week span. It's practically a miracle the thing is any good at all, and it's more than just "good" (though still early-day amateurish in some regards of course.)

To my shame, I still have never yet read TWHF. Although people who have read that and Cry of Justice tell me there are some interesting parallels here and there, which amuses me greatly.


David B Marshall said...

Jason: Run, do not walk. It is just a click of the mouse away.

I forgot all about Pilgrim's Regress! A goofy book, in different ways from Hideous Strength, and one of Lewis' funniest. His barbarian dwarfs and Anglican wine-bibbers are classic, though a lot of the 30s satire is over my head. Two weeks! I can barely write a book proposal in two weeks. Think of it -- Congress and the White House can only put us $80 billion further in debt in two weeks!

Tom Gilson said...

My favorite line of all from C.S. Lewis--and I have a lot of favorites--was in the Narnia book you chose. It took my breath away:

“It seems, then,” said Tirian, smiling too, “that the Stable seen from within and the Stable seen from without are two different places.”

“Yes,” said the High King Peter. “Its inside is bigger than its outside.”

“Yes,” said Queen Lucy, “In our world too, a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.”

David B Marshall said...

Yes. I recently read some Christian writer who said Narnia is not nearly as good as Harry Potter. I couldn't put my finger on why this is wrong -- but I think you have. Narnia, too, is a bigger place from the inside of its ideas, than looking at it as a piece of literature from the outside.

David B Marshall said...

BTW, although there aren't many comments on this thread, yet, it seems to be getting a lot of readers.

Unknown said...

I agree that Till We Have Faces is by far his best novel, and Lewis himself considered it to be as much. However, the Nobel Prize is not awarded for individual works, only for lifetime achievement, so it's impossible for a book, however good it might be, to win that award (i.e. when Faulkner won, it wasn't for "The Sound and the Fury" or "As I Lay Dying" it was given in recognition for the sum total of his contributions to literature).

David B Marshall said...

I've been trying to break into Faulkner with Absolom, but he doesn't go easy on his would-be readers.

-D- said...

Quick comments: the original title of "Poetry and Prose in the 16th Century" was "English Literature in the Sixteenth Century excluding Drama."

I like the original title better, both because it is quirkier and also more specific. It explains why, among other things, Lewis discussed Shakespeare's sonnets but not his plays.

By the way, in those pre-computer days, once Lewis had finished writing gthe book, it took him another year to compile the index.

David B Marshall said...

I know it was his own long walk into Mordor. He's always complaining about it in his letters. I need to get my own print copy.