Review of 'An experiment in criticism' on 'Goodreads'

5 stars

This is a fantastic short book on the purpose and value of criticism. I had read chapters from it previously, but this is my first read all the way through. This read through is prompted by my preliminary work on developing my thesis for the MA program at Mythgard Institute.

Not only does Lewis make a strong case for looking at literary criticism from a different perspective — that of how readers read, as opposed to what they read — but it ends strongly, stating what I think is at least a similar sentiment to my own about what literature does, and something that I strongly suspect is a universal experience for what Lewis calls "literary readers," even if not all of them acknowledge it.

As I've done before, rather than trying to sum up my thoughts, I'm going to note passages that I enjoyed while reading this:

p. 91-92: "In characterising the two sorts of reading [good and bad] I have deliberately avoided the word 'entertainment'. Even when fortified by the adjective mere, it is too equivocal. If entertainment means light and playful pleasure, then I think it is exactly what we ought to get from some literary work…. If it means those things which 'grip' the reader of popular romance—suspense, excitement and so forth—then I would say that every book should be entertaining. A good book will be more; it must not be less."

p. 106: "Observation of how men read is a strong basis for judgements on what they read; but judgements on what they read is a flimsy, even a momentary, basis for judgements on their way of reading. For the accepted valuation of literary works varies with every change of fashion, but the distinction between attentive and inattentive, obedient and wilful, disinterested and egoistic, modes of reading is permanent; if ever valid, everywhere and always."

p. 120: "The question is about the criticism which pronounces on the merits of books; about evaluations, and devaluations. Such criticism was once held to be of use to authors. But that claim has on the whole been abandoned. It is now valued for its supposed use to readers…. For me it stands or falls by its power to multiply, safeguard, or prolong those moments when a good reader is reading well a good book and the value of literature thus exists in actu."

p. 130: "Are you and I especially obliged or especially qualified to discuss what, precisely, the good of literature consists in? To explain the value of any activity, still more to place it in a hierarchy of values, is not generally the work of the activity itself."

p. 132: "A work of literary art can be considered in two lights. It both means and is. It is both Logos (something said) and Poiema (something made). As Logos it tells a story, or expresses an emotion, or exhorts or pleads or describes or revokes or excites laughter. As Poiema, by its aural beauties and also by the balance and contrast and the unified multiplicity of its successive parts, it is an objet d'art, a thing shaped so as to give great satisfaction."

p. 140: "Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality…. But in reading literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with myriad eyes, but it is still I who see."