Two Kinds of Reading

from My Commonplace | The Reading Mother
Lady With An Open Book, Oil on Canvas by Anton Faistauer (Austrian, 1887-1930)

There are two ways of enjoying the past, as there are two ways of enjoying a foreign country. One man carries his Englishry abroad with him and brings it home unchanged. Wherever he goes he consorts with the other English tourists. By a good hotel he means one that is like an English hotel. He complains of the bad tea where he might have had excellent coffee. He finds the natives quaint and enjoys their quaintness . . . In the same way there is a man who carries his modernity with him through all his reading of past literatures and preserves it intact. The highlights in all the ancient and medieval poetry are for him the bits that resemble – the poetry of his own age.

. . . But there is another sort of travelling and another sort of reading. You can eat the local food and drink the local wines, you can share the foreign life, you can begin to see the foreign country as it looks, not to the tourist, but to its inhabitants. You can come home modified, thinking and feeling as you did not think and feel before. So with the old literature. You can go beyond the first impression that a poem makes on your modern sensibility. By study of things outside the poem, by comparing it with other poems, by steeping yourself in the vanished period, you can then re-enter the poem with eyes more like those of the natives; now perhaps seeing that the associations you gave to the old words were false, that the real implications were different than you supposed, that what you thought strange was then ordinary and that what seemed to you ordinary was then strange.

. . . I am writing to help, if I can, the second sort of reading. Partly, of course, because I have a historical motive. I am a man as well as a lover of poetry: being human, I am inquisitive, I want to know as well as to enjoy. But even if enjoyment alone were my aim I should still choose this way, for I should hope to be led by it to newer and fresher enjoyments, things I could never have met in my own period, modes of feeling, flavours, atmospheres, nowhere accessible but by a mental journey into thereal past. I have lived nearly sixty years with myself and my own century and am not so enamoured of either as to desire no glimpse of a world beyond them. As the mere tourist’s kind of holiday abroad seems to me rather a waste of Europe—there is more to be got out of it than he gets—so it would seem to me a waste of the past if we were content to see in the literature of every bygone age only the reflexion of our own faces. ~ C. S. Lewis “De Audendis Poetis”, from Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature

Two Kinds of Reading | the Reading Mother

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