Quote: The first reading
I recently re-read C.S. Lewis’ essay “On Stories,” for perhaps the half-dozenth time. It truly is a gold mine for any one who loves reading of other worlds, other times, and other places. In short, a reader like me. Among other things, this piece helped inspire me to become a writer.
Lewis waxes eloquent on many aspects of stories and writing in the essay, but one consistent theme is that of what we get out of reading. Some readers, Lewis acknowledges, read for the sheer excitement of finding out what happens next. For danger, narrow escapes, the alternating tension of risk and resolution, what Lewis calls “narrative lust.”
However, he maintains that (for certain readers at least):
“We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading.”
Now, I don’t suppose everyone will agree with him on this one, but let’s hear him out. Just what does Lewis mean when he says this?
A certain surprisingness
Though some read for surprise, readers like Lewis read for something else. It’s not just danger they want, but a certain quality of reality which they seek. Danger from giants, he points out, is a very different thing than danger from pirates. What this reader wants is not so much thrills and escapes, but the inherent quality of the other world through which he wanders.
For this kind of reader, the events of the story are only a vehicle to get at something larger. The lumbering, slumbering, ancient feel of nature which the giants give us, the terrible, lawless mystery of pirate life. The mind and spirit long to understand and wrestle with certain aspects of reality in a way that routine and daily living obscure. And story, by taking us out of our own world, and helping us attend to deeper, more fundamental realities, can help us see what we’ve been missing.
When we read for something beyond excitement, the first reading of a story is therefore the least useful. It gets us the events, but little else. We’re too distracted by consuming the mere information to fully appreciate the subtle shades and underlying qualities of the journey we are on. Subsequent readings let us bask instead in the inner qualities of the world which surrounds the story. We read not for surprise, but for a certain “surprisingness”. Knowing the twist is coming, we can relish the fact that it doesn’t seem like it will. Lewis points out that this is perhaps one reason children never tire of having the same story read to them over and over. “They want to have the ‘surprise’ of discovering that what seemed Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother is really the wolf.”
Different kinds of readers
Lewis recognizes that not all readers will enjoy the aspects of story which he does. Some people see no point in reading a story a second time since they already know what will happen. But though for time’s sake I do not re-read as much as I’d like, I’m with Lewis here. Any story that is worth reading once is worth reading again and again. The taste of peach cobbler is just as wondrous at the first meal as at the fiftieth. No, I take that back. With books, the taste gets even better with subsequent helpings. I always see and notice things which I missed upon earlier readings. I can more fully absorb the hidden, eternal qualities of a story because all the introductions have been gotten out of the way. I speak the language of the Shire now, and so can converse more freely with its inhabitants.
So it is with me. How about you? Are you a re-reader? Or do you think Lewis here is out to lunch?