Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Nonfiction Files

The Nonfiction Files is a weekly journal of my adventures reading my toppling piles of nonfiction books. I won't be posting reviews, but rather my thoughts about what I'm reading, while I'm reading it.

I'm currently reading The Magician's Book by Laura Miller. You can read my first post about it here.

Synopsis from publisher:

THE MAGICIAN'S BOOK is the story of one reader's long, tumultuous relationship with C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. Enchanted by its fantastic world as a child, prominent critic Laura Miller returns to the series as an adult to uncover the source of these small books' mysterious power by looking at their creator, Clive Staples Lewis. What she discovers is not the familiar, idealized image of the author, but a more interesting and ambiguous truth: Lewis's tragic and troubled childhood, his unconventional love life, and his intense but ultimately doomed friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien.

Finally reclaiming Narnia "for the rest of us," Miller casts the Chronicles as a profoundly literary creation, and the portal to a life-long adventure in books, art, and the imagination.

My thoughts so far:

The middle section of this book - called Trouble in Paradise - deals with the author's initial discovery that Lewis' books have a strong Christian allegorical element, and her subsequent anger and disillusionment. She had decided that the Catholic church was not for her at a young age, and saw the Narnia books as a deception, trying to indoctrinate her into a belief system she had already rejected. She felt tricked and cheated. This might seem like an overreaction, but she was about 13 at the time, and overreacting is, after all, probably what 13-year-olds do best.

The author goes on to share other writer's stories about how and when they first realized that the Narnia books were more than just a magical story. She also spends several chapters discussing the criticisms of Lewis's books - that they are misogynist, racist, classist - all accusations that can be backed up within the pages of his text.

I think this section of the book could be hard to read for die-hard Lewis fans. I think we often put people like C.S. Lewis on a sort of pedestal, and don't want to admit that he, like all of us, had faults and imperfections. But I don't feel like this information really changed my love of his novels. I especially liked the following section:

"The honest, educated reader, when tackling the towering literary works of the past, now faces a different, though no less precarious task: how to acknowledge an author's darker side without losing the ability to enjoy and value the book. Prejudice is repellent, but if we were to purge our shelves of all the great books tainted by one vile idea or another, we'd have nothing left to read - or at least nothing but the new and blandly virtuous....In recent years, it's gotten easier to write off complaints about how an author portrays race, class, or gender as "political correctness", but that's just as facile as reducing every author to the sum of his political beliefs; hatred and injustice are wrong, not merely "incorrect"...But perhaps ethics are not all that counts, or even what really counts, when it comes to reading stories. I have hated some morally impeccable novels, and liked some reprehensible ones. I'm not convinced that either kind has altered the moral underpinnings of my own life...Perhaps I did not so much learn from these books as recognize my better self in them."

In any case, I'm still finding the book extremely interesting. I'm enjoying learning more about the life of C.S. Lewis, and the work that went into writing these beloved novels. And I don't feel betrayed or deceived by the darker side of Narnia, or its author - I don't expect writers to be perfect people, even if they write from a Christian viewpoint. I just want them to write great books.

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