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Jana Riess: A last-minute gift for the spiritual reader in your life

(The Associated Press) C. S. Lewis.

If you find yourself wondering, just days before Christmas, what gift to offer the spiritual book-lover on your list, problem solved! I’ve got the perfect idea. You’re welcome.

The Reading Life: The Joy of Seeing New Worlds Through Others’ Eyes” takes snippets of C.S. Lewis’ various writings, all themed around the capacious love he had for books and reading, and gathers them into a gift book that’s conveniently sized for tucking in a loved one’s stocking. (Warning: You may not see them all the rest of Christmas morning as they hunker down in some quiet corner and recognize Lewis’ kindred readerly spirit in these pages.)

The pieces are short and well-chosen, and often hit upon a nostalgia factor. Several times in essays, Lewis reflects on children’s literature as a nourishing source of adult reflection. He says those stories mean something different to him as a mature man than they did in childhood, but that it’s that very timelessness that make them important to revisit. “When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up,” he writes.

This attraction to myth and children’s fantasy leads him to review his friend J.R.R. Tolkien’s work; Lewis’ early reviews of “The Hobbit” and “The Fellowship of the Ring” are included in the collection, and make for fascinating reading for anyone who loves the series. He urges people to take the LOTR books seriously as literature. “‘The Hobbit’ . . . will be funniest to its younger readers, and only years later, at a 10th or 20th reading, will they begin to realize what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but ‘The Hobbit’ may well prove a classic.”

In a similar vein, he notes that true readers just don’t have an age-based timetable for what they find interesting:

“The neat sorting-out of books into age-groups, so dear to publishers, has only a very sketchy relation with the habits of any real readers. Those of us who are blamed when old for reading childish books were blamed when children for reading books too old for us. No reader worth his salt trots along in obedience to a timetable.”

Lewis covers some familiar and controversial questions — is it permissible to dog-ear a book? No, he insists; such behavior ought to fill us with shame. (I stubbornly dog-eared that page.) Yet he gives the thumbs-up to marginalia: He underlines, indexes, and comments in his books, particularly ones he didn’t think were very good, thereby making them his own. “I often wonder — considering how people enjoy themselves developing photos or making scrapbooks — why so few people make a hobby of their reading in this way. Many an otherwise dull book which I had to read I have enjoyed in this way, with a fine-nibbed pen in my hand: One is making something all the time and [a] book so read acquires the charm of a toy without losing that of a book.”

Not all of the essays are lighthearted love letters to the act of reading. In “The Case for Reading Old Books,” he takes on a question that plagues me constantly: What will turn out to have been the blindnesses of our own age? When we read writers across the centuries, we are alive to their false assumptions in a way they were not able to be:

“Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny . . .

We can be sure that the characteristic blindness of the 20th century — the blindness about which our posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’ — lies where we never would have suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement.”

When we read this collection from Lewis more than half a century after his death, his own blind spots will seem obvious to us — his utter lack of attention to questions of gender, race and colonialism; and his assumption that the Western canon of literature is canonical because it is superior and not simply because it helps to reify those assumptions about gender, race and colonialism.

But that’s not the point. Or at least, that’s not the only point. That essay, like all great literature, should make us pause and turn the tables on ourselves, and try to spot our own Achilles heels. It’s not that “there is any magic about the past,” as Lewis makes clear. People were not more clever or moral then than they are now. But a regular habit of keeping “the clean breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds” broadens our perspective, and makes us challenge the unquestioned assumptions of our age, in a way that reading only contemporary writers cannot.

Other books about books, as love letters for the readers in your life:

The Little Paris Bookshop.” In this light 2016 novel, a man who has styled himself as a “literary apothecary” floats along the Seine in his bookshop on a barge, always dispensing the right book to the right person at the right time. It’s his gift to be able to do this for others, healing their brokenness.

The main question of the novel is whether he’ll be able to fix his own broken heart. (Spoiler alert: He does. Suspense is not the reason to read this book, people. The internal book recommendations are the reason to read this book.)

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society.” Last year, Netflix adapted this 2009 novel into a movie that was delightful in every way but one: it lost all of the fascinating book talk that made the original epistolary novel so special. In the movie, the literary society is basically a vehicle for resistance to the Nazi occupation of Guernsey and, postwar, a device for kindling romance between the thinly disguised Darcy and Elizabeth characters. But in the book, the GLPPS is also an actual, bona fide book club that functions as a lifeline for avid readers. Their spirited debates about Seneca and the Brönte sisters capture the heart of how reading can change lives.

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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