Tuesday, August 19, 2008
On May 7, 1943, C.S. Lewis responded to a request from the BBC for him to give a talk about Paradise Lost during a radio series on great Christian books. Lewis said that such a talk would amount to "an absolute waste of time." Why? "What's the good of telling them they'll enjoy it, when we both know they won't?" asked Lewis, rhetorically.
Perhaps Lewis did not think he could do Milton's masterpiece justice during a short radio spot. Lewis had written a 143 page book A Preface to Paradise Lost (1942) just to set the groundwork at an academic level to Paradise Lost.
It's possible that Lewis realized that most people won't put the effort into truly understanding and enjoying a work of literature such as Paradise Lost, not because Lewis was a snob, but because he knew he would not have enough time to even establish the basics of approaching Paradise Lost, much less understanding it.
Lewis, by the way, claimed to have first read Paradise Lost when he was 9. Elsewhere he shares that he had read it many times before he could say he understood a certain passage. In other words, Paradise Lost is not what you'd find on the Christian bestseller list today - an easy read with simple points. It is, rather, a book that requires multiple readings.
In A Preface to Paradise Lost, Lewis wrote of his experience looking through used copies of epic poetry: "In them you find often enough a number of not very remarkable lines underscored with pencil in the first two pages, and all the rest of the book virgin."
In other words, people give up on such works, probably because they do not have the background necessary to understand the form, much less the broad knowledge-base necessary to comprehend much of the book.
This was in the early 1940s, mind you. I'd have to say that we are much worse off today when it comes to reading and understanding classic literature. But that is not to say that we should not try. We should, lest we miss out on the great conversations present in the literature of the ages. In lacking cultural literacy, we become intellectual bumpkins in a world satisfied with pulp fiction.