Wednesday, April 11, 2012

"Those books are for kids"? C.S. Lewis says no

Over at the Dish they've been having some fun with a bit of snark by Joel Stein, who exhorts adults to act their age while reading:
The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.
Now, this strikes me as a cocktail party provocation -- who really gets indignant about other people's choice of reading matter? -- albeit with the germ of a point that could be worked out more seriously (e.g., by humorless on!). A host of readers have been delighted to take the bait, defending adult reading of YA and children's books with reasons many and good.  The best, of course, is sharing an experience -- often quite deeply -- with one's children. Also, it never hurts to connect with our inner child.  Then, too, teenagers are a great audience -- in a sense, the ur-audience -- for the internal angst that the novel evolved to express, so novels dramatizing teen angst often connect with readers of all ages. One Dish reader, a much-traveled businessman, adds that mega-popular series like Harry Potter click with huge numbers of people around the world and provide a basis for relationship.  Finally the best children's literature is high art indeed, evoking the passions, dilemmas, and quiddity of human experience as intensely as good literature for adults.

One forceful spokesman for children's literature was C.S. Lewis, a man who spent his life reading adult literature from the Iliad to Eliot (whom he professed not to understand at all), and who is probably better known for the seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia he dashed off for children than for all his scholarship, religious polemic, and adult fiction.  Lewis's argument for children's literature was partly historical: the kind of fantasy and romance he loved was out of fashion in his time. He was suspicious of fashion in all things --and children, he suggested, were immune to it.  In "On Juvenile Tastes," noting that "specifically childish taste has been generally held to be that for the adventurous and marvellous," he argued there is nothing inherently childish in it:

Now this, you may notice, implies that we are regarding as specifically childish a taste which in many, perhaps in most, times and places has been that of the whole human race. Those stories from Greek or Norse mythology, from Homer, from Spenser, or from folklore which children (but by no means all children) read with delight were once the delight of everyone.

Even the fairy tale proprement dit was not originally intended for children; it was told and enjoyed in (of all places) the court of Louis XIV. As Professor Tolkien has pointed out, it gravitated to the nursery when it went out of fashion among the grown-ups, just as old-fashioned furniture gravitated to the nursery. Even if all children and no adults now liked the marvellous--and neither is the case--we ought not to say that the peculiarity of children lies in their liking it.  The peculiarity is that they still like it, even in the twentieth century...

...the peculiarity of child readers is that they are not peculiar. It is we who are peculiar. Fashions in literary taste come and go among the adults, and every period has its own shibboleths. These, when good, do not improve the taste of children, and, when bad, do not corrupt it; for children read only to enjoy. Of course, their limited vocabulary and general ignorance make some books unintelligible to them. But apart from that, juvenile taste is simply human taste, going on from age to age, silly with a universal silliness or wise with a universal wisdom, regardless of modes, movement, and literary revolution (On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, pp. 50-51).
A couple of things to note here. First, Lewis does not unduly romanticize children; their taste can be "silly" or "wise" -- and we may infer that lots of hugely popular children's lit can be real drek.  Elsewhere, Lewis writes about children's taste for stories that gratify vanity and social climbing and material wish fulfillment.  Second, he acknowledges that plenty of matter that should engage adults is outside of children's ken.

Nonetheless, I am not content to let Lewis have the last word regarding his hobbyhorse about fashionability, his implication that there is no inherent reason to be particularly attuned with the tastes and perceptions of one's own time, and that changes in sensibility represent mere cycles of fashion. Elsewhere, he makes an  argument on behalf of religion similar to his apologia above for "marvellous" tales: since virtually all human beings everywhere have adhered to belief in God or gods, that belief is most likely true, and modern skepticism is an evanescent fashion (probably -- unless humanity is simply headed straight for hell or extinction).  

Lewis was so at odds with what he perceived to be the follies of his age (and to be fair, he lived through the two world wars, fighting in one, and the rise of the totalitarianisms), so at war with what he regarded as chronological snobbery (the assumption that 'we know better today'), that he lived in self-imposed chronological exile. Though he ridiculed those who thought that they (or their students) needed to formally study the literature of their own age (or any age beyond the Renaissance), he himself didn't understand much of the literature of his own time any better than a child. Perhaps that's because he willed himself into a kind of historical childhood -- acknowledging no human progress, no possibility that we know more about justice or fairness or freedom than people in past ages (again, a belief that's admittedly easier to hold in 2012 than in, say, 1946).

I am confusing my argument somewhat by bringing up moral progress, because art, unlike scientific knowledge or humanity's material welfare or, I believe, our moral understanding, does not improve over time.  The Odyssey or The Winter's Tale are as awe-inspiring now as when they were new. And anyway, snarky Joel Stein was not saying 'don't read old books,' he was saying 'don't read children's books' (presumably, 'don't mainly read children's books'). But Stein has a point, one that in fact even Lewis briefly acknowledges: while the best children's books can bring many core human experiences 'marvelously' to life, there are many equally or more intense experiences that they can't touch. 

While there's nothing wrong with an adult devoting leisure time to The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, they are not sufficient. They should not crowd out The Gulag Archipelago, or The Moons of Jupiter, or Midnight's Children. Confining your reading to children's books would be like confining your sex life to hugs and kisses (or bowel movements, if Freud still has any currency. As I would say he does in this regard, on the evidence of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory if nothing else -- a sadistic scatological festival for the little devils if ever there was one).

Well, duh, xpost.  After all this verbiage, is that all you have to say?

More on C. S. Lewis
Aliyah on an escalator
Hostile takeover: Screwtape at News Corp.
Myths are all very well
Siblings at the end of days
C.S. Lewis, democrat by default


  1. Meh.

    To me, the original snark was far more embarrassing than the object of its scorn--for I find this very narrow attachment to literary snobbery to be one of the silliest things out there. I mean--i've read a number of supposedly "classic" works--Brothers Karamazov, War & Peace, The Master & Marguerita, Brave New World, Ethan Frome, etc--and they weren't any better at generating reflections about the human condition than a bunch of the science fiction (Dune, Snowcrash, Anathem, Harlan Ellison short stories, American Gods) that I read today.

    People thinking that the books they read somehow define the worth of their existence in a major way strike me as not really getting the point of this life. Books are cool.. books are awesome.. but really, they are only one facet of living...

  2. I think a question to be asked much modern "adult" literature is as good as The Hunger Games or the Harry Potter series? How many are as good as The Gulag Archipelago? While our society has clearly extended childhood and adolescence well into what used to be considered grown up life, I wonder if adults aren't reading more adult books because current "adult" literature just sucks. There's a longstanding schism in modern culture where stuff that's supposed to be art doesn't have to be entertaining and stuff that's supposed to be entertaining doesn't have to be any good.

    And what do we mean by "adult" literature? Does that include Catcher in the Rye? What about Moby Dick? I read both of those books in high school and enjoyed them, but I also read Martin Caidin's Cyborg (the basis for the 6 Million Dollar Man TV show) in the same era and enjoyed that about as much.


  3. I’m an avid reader (YA is my favourite, but I’ve read many many varied books), and I haven’t heard of any of those so called “sufficient" books. What does that mean anyway? Sufficient for what?

    I don’t appreciate the dig at celibacy either (for two reasons: people who choose it for religious reasons, and asexual people who choose it for those reasons. No I'm not explaining asexuality, go google it). Comparing reading to sex? What? How is that at all a fair analogy? It doesn’t make sense.

    As for the point about adult literature being better than children's books - I dunno. What can an adult book say more effectively than children's literature? Harry Potter for instance, has loads of deep things to say about the nature of war, of gender equality, love and loss. Song of Ice and Fire has similar messages, but says it with more violence and sex. The Animorphs novels (a YA sci fi series) are still as enjoyable and thought provoking (when I can find one that I haven't already read) as when I first read them at 13. Many of the books that I've enjoyed most and learnt more from have been children's or young adult books. Oh, and I don't have learning difficulties (but I do have a science degree, so I do have the ability to read complex documents), just to head anyone off on that front.

    And where does modern/contemporary literature begin? Does Brave New World count as new enough? Which, coincidentally, is a terribly written book (the characters are inconsistent and so is the writing style. And I don't believe it was on purpose, but the themes of the novel are brilliantly cutting).

    I know these are old, but are Charles Dicken's works only for children? Because that shit is difficult for a lot of kids to read, and funnily enough, many of the messages are things that only adults can do anything about.

    Well, at least the article isn't an attack on fantasy or sci fi novels.