Friday, October 07, 2011
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."