Quote: The first reading - djedwardson.com
first reading lewis quote

Quote: The first reading

first reading lewis quote

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.”

—C.S. Lewis

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.

stairway of booksFor 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?


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Comments (8)

  1. Jenelle says:

    I am a re-reader. Though there are some very few books where the “whoa!” moments were so poignant or so memorable that I sometimes catch myself wistfully wishing that I could read them “for the first time” just once more, step back into that same sort of wide-eyed wonder just once more. Which, of course, is impossible. Sadly.

    But I also love unwrapping the layers of stories upon subsequent readings, discovering phrases or moments I missed the first time around, not because I accidentally skimmed over them, but because I wasn’t paying as much attention to the details the first time through, or because I’m going through something and different moment stick out to me more starkly that wouldn’t have mattered as much when first I read the words. I completely agree with Lewis on this one.

    • DJ Edwardson says:

      Yes, it is true that you probably can’t feel certain things like Gandalf’s death as such a blow knowing he will return. Certain things cannot be replicated.

      I’m glad you are able to enjoy the “layers” as you say, which re-reading affords. The good books truly are “never the same story twice!”

  2. Love this post! Excellent thoughts. 🙂 Like you, I don’t reread as often as I might like, due to time–there are many new stories to discover out there! But if I really LOVED a book, if it was really excellent (like books by Tolkien, Lewis, Alexander, and Diana Wynne Jones, for example) then I will make the time to go back and try the journey again, and yes, I ALWAYS find more on the second journey and the experience is enriched. 🙂

    • DJ Edwardson says:

      Yes, I do imagine Lewis had less distractions to deal with and less selection when it came to books he was tempted to read.

      I envy him being able to sit in his study and read to the sound of the English rain, going over the wilds of Elfenland a third, or a fourth, or an eighth time! Oh to have such richness of hours!

      Keep reading and re-reading Deborah! As I’m sure you will.

  3. I think of this from the writer’s side: How do I pack meaning in for several levels and several re-reads.

    It makes me careful. And precise. And nuanced.

    It has to be built in for the reader to find it.

    • DJ Edwardson says:

      Yes! I love doing that. The author is the one who must see the layers first. I put quite a few easter eggs into the Chronotrace series and dozens of little nuggets of inspiration. So far not many seem to have been noticed…Maybe some day!

  4. Abbey says:

    Lovely post. 🙂 I am definitely a re-reader. I read a few of my favorite books every year because they are just so wonderful. And, for me personally, I like to know what’s going to happen before it happens anyway, so re-reading is a wonderful thing.

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