C. S. Lewis on Books and Reading

Reading, literature, and books according to C. S. Lewis:

It will come as no surprise that I like to read. Nor would it be surprising to state that I love reading C. S. Lewis. It also goes without saying that Lewis was a great reader. As such, he often commented on books and reading. Some of the things he has said about these matters have now become quite familiar and famous.

Here I simply feature some of these quotes for those of you who cannot get enough of Lewis, of reading, and of literature. We of course find so much on these things throughout his corpus. That makes sense given that he was a specialist in English, and especially medieval, literature. I arrange these quotes simply in order of what book they appeared in. Only in a few cases have I not got the full, specific source of the quote.

“The more up to date the Book is, the sooner it will be dated.” Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer

“It is usual to speak in a playful apologetic tone about one’s adult enjoyment of what are called “children’s books”. I think the convention a silly one. No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty… The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all. A mature palate will probably not much be for crème de menthe: but it ought still to enjoy bread and butter and honey.” Of Other Worlds, “On Stories”

“I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can like only when you are waltzing is a bad waltz.” Of Other Worlds, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”

“The majority never read anything twice. The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers ‘I’ve read it already’ to be a conclusive argument against reading a work.” An Experiment in Criticism

“Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented.” An Experiment in Criticism

“It is a very silly idea that in reading a book you must never ‘skip’. All sensible people skip freely when they come to a Chapter which they find is going to be no use to them.” Mere Christianity, Book 4, Ch. 3

“The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden—that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time.” Mere Christianity, Book 4, Ch. 3

“What can be better than to get out a book on Saturday afternoon and thrust all mundane considerations away till next week?” The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis

“Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton are certainties whatever shortened course or ordinary course you take. Next to these in importance come Malory, Spenser, Donne, Dryden, Pope, Swift, Johnson, Wordsworth. After that it becomes more a matter of taste. The great thing is to be always reading but not to get bored–treat it not like work, more as a vice! Your book bill ought to be your biggest extravagance.” An April 1941 letter to a student

“I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.” The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, Feb. 1932

“Clearly one must read every good book at least once every ten years.” The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 17 August 1933

“When one has read a book, I think there is nothing so nice as discussing it with some one else – even though it sometimes produces rather fierce arguments.” The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 14 March, 1916

“If only one had time to read a little more: we either get shallow & broad or narrow and deep.” The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, 2 March, 1919

“By having a great many friends I do not prove that I have a wide appreciation of human excellence. You might as well say I prove the width of my literary taste by being able to enjoy all the books in my own study. The answer is the same in both cases–“You chose those books. You chose those friends. Of course they suit you.” The truly wide taste in reading is that which enables a man to find something for his needs on the sixpenny tray outside any secondhand bookshop. The truly wide taste in humanity will similarly find something to appreciate in the cross-section of humanity whom one has to meet every day.” The Four Loves

Image of The Reading Life: The Joy of Seeing New Worlds Through Others’ Eyes
The Reading Life: The Joy of Seeing New Worlds Through Others’ Eyes by Lewis, C. S. (Author) Amazon logo

“Many will think it reasonable to examine children in Geography or (Heaven help us!) in Divinity, yet not in English, on the ground that Geography and Divinity were never intended to entertain, whereas Literature was. The teaching of English Literature, in fact, is conceived simply as an aid to ‘appreciation’. And appreciation is, to be sure, a sine qua non. To have laughed at the jokes, shuddered at the tragedy, wept at the pathos—this is as necessary as to have learned grammar. But neither grammar nor appreciation is the ultimate End.

“The true aim of literary studies is to lift the student out of his provincialism by making him ‘the spectator’, if not of all, yet of much, ‘time and existence’. The student, or even the schoolboy, who has been brought by good (and therefore mutually disagreeing) teachers to meet the past where alone the past still lives, is taken out of the narrowness of his own age and class into a more public world.” Present Concerns, “The Death of English”

“There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about ‘isms’ and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

“This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.

“Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light….

“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow oneself another new one until you have read an old one in between.” Excerpt from the Introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation – also in God in the Dock, “On the Reading of Old Books”

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” ?


There would be many more such quotes I could have offered here. Indeed, as I neared the end of writing this piece, I realised that I had a book that is all about these matters. So I pulled it off my shelf and will now bring it to your attention. It is The Reading Life edited by David Downing and Michael Mauldin (William Collins, 2020). It contains many of the great things Lewis said about books and reading. It is well worth adding to your collection.

[1703 words]

5 Replies to “C. S. Lewis on Books and Reading”

  1. Oh, excellent- my second favourite evangelical author, next to the late Francis Schaeffer!!!

  2. Now the trick with avid readers is managing reading and eating at the same time. Apparently (for some reason) eating can’t be avoided… Personally I’ve learned that reading and eating ribs or tacos don’t go well together… Oh well…

  3. Here is an additional forgotten (and brutal…) Lewis quote:

    “Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.” (CS Lewis: Magician’s Nephew)

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