How to Read a Book (or The Power of Great Art)

I have long enjoyed literature, though that wasn’t always the case. In 6th or 7th grade I first discovered fantasy literature and that is where the love began. That love has gone through many phases and stages, growing and maturing along the way, but because of it I am always looking out for those who can sympathise, those who can truly understand what happens in me when I read good stories, and can defend those of us who feel their stories deeply. C.S. Lewis was one such sympathiser and his beautiful reflections on the subject are, perhaps, nowhere more clearly stated than in his Experiment in Criticism. Leave it to an apologist to offer such a compelling defense.

The first reading of some literary work is often, to the literary, an experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison. Their whole consciousness is changed.

Perhaps his claims feel far-fetched, but I can attest to them. Stories matter. They make a difference and they call us to respond and interact in much the same way that prayer does–all good art does this. When we sit down to pray, we do not sit down to do something we sit down to meet someone and wait for Him to do something to us. Lewis says this is what good Art invites us to:

We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.

In prayer too, the first demand is surrender. In prayer we admit that there is One who is greater than we, and it is to Him that we turn, whether in praise or petition, in joy or lament. We present ourselves and then we look, listen, and attend to Him that we might receive whatever He may choose to give. So too the books we read, the symphonies we hear, the paintings we admire all invite us to receive. And those that are worth surrendering to, worth opening our hearts to receive, will change us. Mort Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Caravaggio’s “Conversion of St. Paul”, all take me beyond myself. They have all done something in my soul and made a lasting change. They have added to my life.

There is a kind of encounter involved with all good art that is similar to the encounter of contemplative prayer. In both, we attend to the other, whether Divine or invented, and are lifted above ourselves while yet remaining ourselves–perhaps even becoming more ourselves. Our eyes are opened, our senses enlivened. We feel awake at last and alive.

In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

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