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A Life with Books

Books have played an important part in the lives of almost every great leader in history, and it is no surprise to find that they played such a significant role in the life of C. S. Lewis. Long before he made the study of literature his chosen profession, books had been a major part of his development. Even had he not become a university professor, it is dear that Lewis would have been a man who treasured reading. He read books of all kinds: fiction, poetry, theology, philosophy, history, and more. Colleagues remember him as a man who had read and digested just about everything. Lewis knew the value of books.

Lewis particularly valued the classics. He believed that it was the timeless books which are best able to deal with the real issues of our own time. “The more ‘up to date’ the book is, the sooner it will be dated.” For that reason, Lewis suggested spending the bulk of one’s reading time on those books that had established themselves as truly worthy of attention. Instead of the latest additions to the bestseller lists, he recommended spending our reading time with the time-honored greats. Many people steer clear of the classics for fear that they are irrelevant or too difficult. But the classics are neither.

Granted, many of the classic books require a little more concentration than the latest fiction bestseller, but it is a concentration that will pay real dividends in terms of understanding. Not only do the great books help us to understand the past, they also awaken a deeper understanding of the present. That is why Lewis was adamant about people making the classics a part of their personal reading program. “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one for every three new ones.”

Lewis approached his reading as an adventure of discovery. He did not content himself with a cursory scanning of the pages, but instead carefully studied the books he read, marking significant passages and pausing to thoroughly understand their argu-ments. This was especially helpful with a more difficult book. In a letter to Arthur Greeves, Lewis describes how he made a book his own: “I begin by making a map on one of the end leafs: then I put in a genealogical tree or two. Then I put a running headline at the top of each page: finally I index at the end of all the passages I have for any reason underlined.

I often wonder . . . why so few people make a hobby of their reading in this way. Many an otherwise dull book which I had to read have I enjoyed in this way, with a fine-nibbed pen in my hand: one is making something all the time and a book so read acquires the charm of a toy without losing that of a book.” Is it any wonder that a man who read so thoroughly was so brilliantly engaging and had such an astonishing grasp of so many issues? In his own life, Lewis demonstrated the powerful influence that books can have and his example remains a challenge for us today.

The reading of good books will make us wiser “broaden our horizons, challenge our thinking, give flight to our imaginations, and provide hours of enjoyment. Where do we start? Perhaps we could do no better than repeat the advice Lewis gave to one of his students: “The great thing is to be always reading but not to get bored—treat it not like work, more as a vice! Your book bill ought to be your biggest extravagance.”

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